The effects of both weather and emergency events on transportation operations can be significant, and require an effective, coordinated response. The Transportation Management Center (TMC) Integration Study, published in 2006, examines how weather and emergency information and systems are being integrated into transportation operations. It is part of an ongoing research effort by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to identify strategies for enhancing the operational effectiveness of transportation management systems in general and TMCs in particular.
TMC integration reflects how TMC operators, agencies internal to the TMC, external agencies, and support systems interact to improve transportation operations. It is the thesis of this study that integration of weather and emergency systems and information into transportation operations, coupled with effective deployment of ITS, will improve performance and offers benefits in increased public mobility, safety and security.
Thirty-eight TMCs that demonstrated current best practices in weather and emergency integration were interviewed for this study, and ten of those were selected for on-site visits. Based on observations from these TMCs, this study documents an integration framework and describes concepts and methods for improved integration. The study identifies both potential benefits of integration, as well as its challenges, and includes recommendations to enhance the development and deployment of weather and emergency integration in TMCs.
Weather events have both major and minor impacts on transportation management operations. During seasonal weather events, these impacts may include reduced traffic flow or increased traffic incidents. At other times natural disasters (e.g. hurricanes, winter storms, and severe summer storms) have major impacts on transportation management operations. During these events major routing changes, dramatic traffic bottlenecks, or a complete urban, statewide or regional transportation system shutdown may occur.
TMC personnel frequently lack critical weather information and the needed procedures to incorporate weather information into effective decision-making to improve the efficiency of traffic operations. This study demonstrates how integrating weather information and systems across multiple agencies and organizations can help TMCs conduct their operations more effectively.
Based on their interviews with thirty-eight TMCs, the study team identified seven concepts of weather integration. For each concept, a range of implementation methods is presented. According to the authors, TMCs must evaluate which concepts and specific methods will work best for them in meeting their needs. The seven concepts of weather integration, along with some of the implementation methods, are presented below as a set of lessons learned.
- Provide a mechanism for weather information coordination. The management and integration of weather information in a TMC is an important consideration. At a minimum, an intra-TMC committee or staff person should be responsible for weather information coordination. To meet complex organizational and weather information needs, a dedicated weather operations supervisor may be necessary.
- Continuously update weather information. TMCs should have an automated process or other robust structure in place for the continuous updating of weather information. While this function may be performed using weather information from the Internet, more highly integrated methods include contractor-provided surface transportation weather forecasts, field observers or probes providing scheduled weather and driving condition information, and meteorology staff located within the TMC forecasting and interpreting weather information. Some specific examples noted in the study include:
- On the Pennsylvania Turnpike there are scheduled reports around the clock from the field and constant display of weather radar images for each segment of the turnpike across the state.
- In Salt Lake City, a partnership between a surface transportation weather service provider and dedicated statewide weather operations group provides a natural flow and alertness to weather conditions.
- Implement automated thresholds or escalation notification. An automated notification system that triggers a weather situation alarm serves to notify operators of a potentially dangerous condition and enables them to respond more effectively.
- In Houston, TranStar provides a flood gauge map and alarm system.
- Integrate information from multiple sources and subsystems. Automating the collation of weather and traffic related information from multiple sources (or in disparate forms) enables transportation operators to more effectively perform their tasks. Geographic visualization of weather information is one mechanism for providing easy mental integration and understanding. Examples include:
- In Salt Lake City, an Internet, GIS-based webpage shows the driving impacts of weather and/or restrictions on specific route segments throughout the state.
- In Cherry Hill, NJ, maintenance staff uses a magnetic whiteboard to track and organize their snow plowing efforts.
Other examples involving a more sophisticated seamless integration of data from multiple sources are detailed below:
- By integrating data from three ESS (Environmental Sensor Station) servers and incoming road conditions and restrictions, TMCs in Salt Lake City are able to make informed decisions based on information from multiple sites.
- In Maryland, graphic user interfaces of ESS information are used to transfer surface transportation weather forecasts and weather imagery from one vendor to another.
- Utilize TMCs as the operations center and clearinghouse for weather information. TMCs perform a critical function in synthesizing and delivering weather information. To the extent that the systems that collect and distribute weather information (such as Road Weather Information System, Automated Local Event Reporting in Real Time, Flood Emergency Warning System, and 511) are located in-house this will ensure that the data is readily available at all times. Further benefits can be obtained by integrating weather operations staff within the TMC. In this case, traffic operations data can by used by maintenance staff and weather forecasters to confirm conditions and improve emergency responses. Examples of such successes include:
- In Los Angeles, traffic operations personnel identified and tracked major traffic incidents and provided this information to maintenance dispatchers who deployed incident response teams.
- In Salt Lake City, the weather operations group uses CCTV images and road condition reports from traffic operations to confirm weather conditions and refine forecasts provided to statewide maintenance dispatchers.
- In Cherry Hill, NJ, the ATMS tools present in the control room (CCTV) become some of the key sources of weather information.
Where disaster-like weather events are recurrent, the TMC gains operational integration efficiency by co-locating the EOC within the TMC. Several examples of lessons learned demonstrate how weather information can be used by emergency management personnel to monitor potentially dangerous situations or safely dispatch emergency responders.
- In Austin, EOC staff can determine how to route a helicopter air ambulance around localized thunder cells.
- In Houston, heavy towing vehicles are relocated to heavy flooding areas in preparation for expected flooding.
- Build community awareness between the TMC and weather communities. Efforts are needed to educate TMC management on how integrated weather information can support TMC operational effectiveness. Informal gatherings of professionals from both the TMC and weather communities can foster such an understanding. In addition, education materials and training are recommended to enrich the application of weather information in TMCs.
- Utilize decision support tools. In Salt Lake City and Minneapolis, current best practices include the use of quick-reference flip cards at workstations. These flip cards contain specific information related to field conditions that require response, criteria for contacting service providers, summary operational actions or checklists, and contact numbers. Further research is required to develop automated support tools that can assist TMC operators in transportation operation decision-making during, or prior to, weather events.
These experiences suggest that integrating weather information and systems enables TMCs to improve decision making during weather events, thus improving the efficiency of traffic operations. As illustrated in the examples above, by integrating weather observation data from multiple sources, TMC operators have increased accessibility to reliable weather information. Retrieving and analyzing current and accurate information allows TMCs to inform users and operators of any change to the transportation system, reducing congestion and improving public mobility and safety during a weather event.