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21st Century Operations Using 21st Century Technologies

1.0 Introduction

Hurricanes, wildfires, flash floods, toxic chemical releases, terrorist acts, earthquakes—these are some of the natural and technological events that can spell disaster for individuals and communities across the United States. To many Americans, our world may seem like a more dangerous place than in the past. Real and potential terrorists acts and horrific storms such as Katrina and Rita have heightened our concern about natural and manmade disasters and how we deal with them. We are ever more aware of the impact of disasters and the need for plans to deal with them, and government agencies at all levels have focused greater attention and resources on emergency planning and response than any time in the past.

This document focuses on the intersection of two key elements in emergency planning and response: the transportation system and communication with the public. When disaster strikes, individuals at risk need to be informed and protected. If evacuation is in order, how and where should people be transported? Others not directly threatened need to be kept out of harm's way and travel only where it is safe and does not interfere with the emergency responders.

Transportation agencies throughout the country are increasingly equipped to help the public during disasters due to the deployment of technologies known as advanced traveler information systems, or ATIS. They include technologies such as variable message signs (VMS) along roadways, automated telephone systems such as 511, websites, e-mail alerts, and highway advisory radio (HAR). Intended primarily as information tools to assist travelers during “normal” travel, they can be quickly adapted to disaster conditions and be an integral part of an overall approach for communicating emergency information to the public.

The rest of this document examines the role of ATIS in communicating with the public during disaster situations. The document is based on research that included a review of literature, telephone interviews with traffic operations managers, case study interviews at five disaster sites, and a workshop with transportation and emergency managers. It begins with discussion of the challenges and issues in section two, followed by the state of the practice in section three. Section four presents a concept of operations, and section five provides a toolkit for use by public sector agencies to develop a strategy for using ATIS in disasters. Section six is a brief conclusion.

Two photographs of flaming lava flow moving across a road and snow storm in urban area

This document provides practical guidance to public sector managers who plan for and manage the response to disasters. It is targeted to officials in transportation management centers, who already have or will have ATIS assets that can be used for emergencies; to officials in responder agencies, including police, fire, rescue, and emergency management, who need to be aware how ATIS can assist in managing a disaster; and to public information officials from all agencies who coordinate dissemination of information to the public during disasters. Moreover, private sector organizations involved in traveler information and emergency response may also find the document valuable for their interests.

The reader should be aware that, for the purposes of this study, a disaster is defined as an emergency the nature and scale of which outstrips the ability of public agencies to respond as they would to a “normal” incident. The study also focuses on the case studies on disasters that occurred without notice. That is, unlike hurricanes or other natural disasters that are anticipated, the no-notice disasters provide responders with no prior warning of the time, place, or nature of the event.

Photograph of overturned tanker truck blocking roadway, with fire truck and crew nearby
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