When considering the use of camera phones in managing incidents, be aware of the challenges associated with technology interoperability among agencies and first responder priorities.
Washington, D.C., metro area's experience with using camera phones
Made Public Date


District of Columbia
United States


Fairfax County
United States


Montgomery County
United States

Camera Phone Proof-of-Concept Project – Lessons Learned


To evaluate the feasibility of utilizing camera phones in managing traffic incidents, a proof-of-concept project was undertaken in a joint partnership between the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the University of Maryland's Center for Advanced Transportation Technology. Other parties involved included the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) and selected commercial towing companies.

The goal of this project is to improve incident management and response activities in the event of a traffic incident or other emergency situation that affects traffic operations. More specifically, the primary objective is to demonstrate the feasibility of using commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) wireless telephones equipped with cameras to capture and deliver traffic incident imagery that is useful to follow-on responders, such as tow companies, HAZMAT remediation services, health departments, or highway repair teams.

This pilot project was implemented in coordination with the Capital Wireless Integrated Network (CapWIN) staff, VDOT, and several local commercial towing and recovery services. Each camera phone employs wireless picture phone technology that enables participating agencies to capture and transmit digital photos. Emergency responders from agencies, such as the VDOT, and private towing firms used camera phones to take detailed pictures of traffic incident scenes and then transmitted those images directly to their appropriate dispatch center and follow-on responders.

During the test phase of the proof-of-concept project, a total of 19 camera phones were used by four towing companies and the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) from August through October 2006 to transmit 100 photographs of incidents to responders (i.e., towing companies). The project was conducted in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, including Northern Virginia and Maryland.

Lessons Learned

Throughout the camera phone pilot phase, first responders captured images of incidents and forwarded them to towing companies so that the appropriate size/type of recovery vehicle could be dispatched. The Camera Phone project provides the following insights with regard to its utility in the incident and emergency management practices:

  • Encourage interoperability of systems used by the involved agencies. There is a lack of interoperability between different service providers. Using or designing interoperable systems may assist in responsiveness and have potential benefits in transmitting images or audio recording clips even to different departments (i.e. fire, rescue). In many cases, agencies have already invested in equipment. Making the existing equipment interoperable would capitalize on that investment and make it more likely to be used for emergency response, and more likely that the required information can be shared across jurisdictions in a very timely fashion.
  • Understand that capturing and sending an image may not be the immediate concern for first responders. Upon arrival at the incident, the first responders are typically engaged with other pressing activities. There may not be time to take the picture for use as an aid in sending tow vehicles, but those that are taken can be used later for responder training and incident management. As first responders arrive on the scene, they have duties which may be too far away from the actual incident to provide images which are meaningful to the towing companies. Also, capturing the images with this type of equipment may place the responder at risk him or herself.
  • Be aware that users will need to be trained to take pictures without exposing themselves to additional risk by unnecessary exposure at roadside. Upon arrival on the scene and after the first responder has taken care of primary duties, the responder may be inclined to move closer to the actual incident to take pictures. The very action of taking the pictures may expose the responders to bodily harm if his/her attention is diverted from oncoming traffic.
  • Be aware that night time camera phone use or inclement weather conditions may adversely affect the image quality. Using camera phones at night and during inclement weather is not always effective as the image was sometime blurry or too dark to be of benefit. Since the receiving agency may not have been able to view the image clearly, it made it difficult to determine the appropriate towing vehicle to send in response.
  • Encourage sending audio recording clips with all transmitted images to provide greater detail to appropriate responders. Whether or not the camera phones were used during the daytime, night time, or during inclement weather conditions, using audio clips in addition to the transmitted images provided greater detail to the appropriate responders and service providers. The audio clips assisted the responding companies to send the proper towing equipment even if the images were not as useful.
  • Understand the diverse needs and experiences of users when several agencies are involved as stakeholders.
    • Towing companies are able to gain benefit from the pictures for major incidents and especially if they are able to receive the pictures early enough after the incident occurs.
    • If there is a zone-type system where towing companies dispatch immediately upon receiving information about an incident, the picture may not be as beneficial regarding the type of equipment required for a particular incident. The picture, with accompanying audio clip, would give an impression about the order of magnitude of the incident, to help determine the appropriately sized towing vehicle to dispatch.
    • The camera phone images helped the towing vehicle operators plan a response strategy prior to leaving for the incident scene. For example, if the incident image revealed that two lanes were blocked on eastbound traffic lanes, a towing dispatcher may determine that it is more beneficial for the towing vehicle operator to approach the incident from the westbound lanes.
    • There must be an agency-wide attitude of acceptance of standard operating procedures and policies, which are to developed as deemed essential, to guide the use of the phones for all participants.
    • Throughout the entire proof-of-concept project, all incident images were captured and archived. Project participants stated that the archived images can be used to help enhance their future incident response/awareness training activities. For example, the VDOT safety service patrolmen may use the archived images to identify equipment needs for certain types of activities or help them develop response strategies based on the severity of the incident. The images may also be used for incident training.
    • As a result of using the phones, there is great interest in finding technically a way to pull the images in as well as having them pushed through the phone. The images could be available on an FTP (File Transfer Protocol) site, or dash-mounted or vehicle-mounted cameras could provide a continuous feed for users to observe, capture, and provide response.
    • The proof-of-concept showed that the images captured by the first responders were useful to the companies that were sending out towing vehicles. The transmitted images allowed them to view the specific extent of the damage, and to respond accordingly. The images of infrastructure damage also allowed the infrastructure asset managers to assess the damage and plan for future maintenance. The value obtained by the camera phone can be repeated and expanded when interoperability challenges are solved.

The camera phone proof-of-concept project also served as a means to promote the FHWA's broader Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) goals of improving safety and mobility in road travel. Used to their fullest potential, camera phones in service for incident management can assist with relaying information which may have an impact on the type of equipment, route of approach, and subsequent responder training.

Potential success areas also exist in ITS customer satisfaction in that the actual users of the equipment find it easy to navigate and easy to transmit images and audio clips. The individuals receiving the information found it very expedient to receive the images and offered potential enhancement ideas for future iterations such as the ability to take pictures at night and improved audio messaging capability.