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21st Century Operations Using 21st Century Technologies

5.0 Toolkit for Developing an ATIS Strategy

A toolkit provides agencies involved in transportation management, emergency management, and traveler information with a brief and focused set of the items necessary to develop a strategy for providing accurate and useful information to the public during times of disaster. The toolkit is meant to be general: something that can be taken to any region, metropolitan area, or state and used as a template or blueprint for creating a consensus on how a region can use its ATIS assets during a disaster.

Covered in the toolkit are the institutional processes for contacting the agencies and suggestions of the personnel, or the types of people, necessary in times of disaster to distribute and disseminate proper information in the most efficient way possible. The toolkit is meant to serve as a “jumping off” point for regions and/or metropolitan areas, even states, to organize workshops to address the issues faced during times of disaster in the communication of information to the public, using ATIS. The major components of the toolkit and the process for organizing a workshop to develop an ATIS strategy are outlined in Figure 5-1.

Flowchart depicting toolkit for developing ATIS strategy. Four phases are Getting Started by Organizing the Workshop, Developing the Workshop Agenda, Conducting the Workshop, and Workshop Results and What Happens Next. While workshop is being organized, use of NIMS and UIC expertise among workshop invitees should be assessed. First phase focuses on questions that must be asked during planning stages of workshop. Second, potential candidate agenda topics should be considered during development phase. As workshop is conducted in third phase, using an experienced facilitator and a list of questions to stimulate discussion should be considered. Also, workshop should start with general recommendations provided. In fourth phase, potential recommendations are developed.

Figure 5-1. Toolkit for Developing an ATIS Strategy

By tailoring the ideas in the toolkit to local needs, workshop participants can create a cohesive strategy, informed by the input of all involved, which allows a region, metropolitan area, or state to use available ATIS assets to aid the public to the greatest extent possible.

Getting Started: Organizing the Workshop

Initial questions that need to be answered during the planning stages of the workshop include:

Who organizes the workshop? What agency and/or individual(s) with the appropriate level and skills can be called upon to organize the workshop? Is a subcommittee needed with representatives from a few agencies to get buy-in to the workshop concept and to tap their knowledge and resources?

When and where will the workshop take place? Consider the needs and travel arrangements of all invited participants, as well as a room layout that is conducive to interaction.

Photographs showing businesspeople in meetings

Who participates: what agency and what type of person? This toolkit offers some lists of personnel/agencies that should be considered when bringing together a complete set of participants for a workshop. Potential workshop invitees include:

Emergency Planning, Management, and Response

  • State Department of Public Safety or State Department of Emergency Management
  • County Emergency Management personnel
  • City Emergency Management personnel
  • Incident Commander
  • Fire Chief and subordinates
  • Police Chief and subordinates
  • Reverse 911® Coordinator
  • Public Information Officer
  • MPO personnel involved in emergency management
  • FEMA
  • Department of Homeland Security
  • FBI
  • Military Installations (National Guard, DOD)
  • Companies involved in HAZMAT transportation and/or production

Transportation Management

  • County Transportation agencies
  • City Departments of Transportation
  • State DOT Traffic Management Center Managers
  • ITS Coordinator
  • ATIS Coordinator
  • Public Information Officer
  • Transit Agency Managers
  • MPO personnel involved in transportation management

Media and Other Private Sector

  • Television stations
  • Radio stations
  • Dedicated traffic information services
  • Internet informational websites
  • HAM radio associations

Who facilitates the workshop and who serves as recorder during the workshop? The roles of facilitator as well as those who will be recording the proceedings should be decided beforehand and included in the information distributed to invited attendees.

What information should be prepared in advance that will be needed at the workshop? Examples include material from after-action reports or a scenario for a tabletop exercise. Invited attendees can be asked to bring potentially needed or reference materials to the workshop.

Developing the Workshop Agenda

Depending upon how long the workshop is intended to be, an agenda needs to be structured not only to ensure that all the intended topics are covered, but also to keep the participants engaged and contributing to the discussion. Another consideration is how much preparatory work the organizer(s) decides to do prior to the workshop. An agenda developed for a workshop for which there is minimal advanced work can be positioned as a session for the participants “to get their arms around” the topic. In that case, the agenda could be designed to let the audience become the source of the technical information and identify gaps in knowledge and processes that can be worked on after the workshop.

On the other hand, the agenda could incorporate prepared materials, if the organizers choose to invest time in such preparations. For example, subject matter experts could give short presentations on specific topics for discussion, or scenarios could be developed for participants to conduct a tabletop exercise, or other similar materials could be prepared.

There is no right or wrong method, but it is up to the organizers to decide what best fits with local needs. The objective is to begin the process of development of a strategy by getting the appropriate stakeholders involved in discussion. Shown in Table 5-1 is a list of general issues that should be considered in the workshop agenda.

Table 5-1 Candidate Agenda Topics
  • What are the current protocols and SOPs? Beneficial to the attendees of a workshop or tabletop exercise is the assessment of current protocols and standard operating procedures (SOP) for interagency communications. Protocols and SOPs for communication of information to the public during a disaster can be part of this assessment. After-action reports are of particular importance during this step, as these documents can illustrate exactly what methods and communication infrastructure are not only available, but actually used during a disaster or emergency. After-action reports can provide a vehicle for not only documenting system improvements but serve as a blueprint for a work plan for how these improvements can be implemented.
  • What contact lists are maintained, who maintains them, who has access to them? There are "layers" of information that must be circulated during a disaster, and contact lists of appropriate people who should receive the different layers of information can be created and kept by all participating agencies. For instance, is a regional master list kept, with complete contact information, of emergency management and transportation management agencies and personnel who should be contacted during a disaster? Is it a living document, able to be updated via a web interface by those who appear on the list? Are there lists of special groups who should have access to more information than the general public, such as hospitals, HAZMAT facilities and transportation companies, nursing homes, large office parks, and schools?
  • What are the current, planned, and potential ATIS assets? The scope and breadth of a region's, state's, or metropolitan area's ATIS infrastructure, including planned projects and emerging technologies, should be identified and that knowledge brought to the table for discussion. A workshop that has gathered experts in the fields of emergency management and transportation should have a clear understanding of what devices and services are available for use during a disaster and who has ownership over each set of devices. Which agency has ownership over which devices, and which are, or can be, controlled jointly? How many devices exist? What services do private traveler information providers have to offer? What plans are in place to expand current networks? It is possible that personnel from agencies involved in emergency management and transportation might not be aware of the devices and services that exist outside of their own jurisdiction. Taking time to identify all ATIS in a region can also sometimes reveal unnecessary redundancy. In addition, the risks involved in relying too heavily on one set of devices as opposed to another should be identified and examined.
  • How and by whom is ATIS message content generated during emergencies? The content of messages disseminated via ATIS devices should be examined. ATIS devices can be a powerful tool to disseminate information during a disaster, but care needs to be taken regarding what messages are being disseminated. These messages can be generated by multiple agencies, and if they are not coordinating their information dissemination, there can be disparity in the quality and content of the message.
Chart - When the level of message detail is most details. the dissemination tool is broadcast radio and TV.  When the level of message detail is fewer details. the dissemination tool is e-mail, pager and text message alerts Telephone and websites (including 511 and Reverse 911® systems) HAR. When the level of message detail is least details. the dissemination tool is Fixed and portable VMS and telephone - a phone-in system can typically be modified to reduce message length to allow the system to handle a larger number of simultaneous calls.

Figure 5-2. Dissemination Tools and Level of Message Detail During Emergencies

  • Some messages may even contradict, giving the public conflicting information. In addition, not all messages fit all devices. For instance, detailed information given via a 511 floodgate is certainly more information than is appropriate for VMS or a text alert. However, the average traveler increasingly has convenient and consistent access to cell phones, and that ubiquity illustrates why shorter messages are just as important as longer ones.
  • How do public policies affect private sector disseminators of traveler information? The policies developed by public agencies must take into account the private sector collectors, consolidators, and disseminators of traveler information. Media outlets such as radio stations, television stations, and websites should be privy to the details of the policies that affect the sharing of traveler information during times of emergency. Creation of those policies should take into account the needs, capabilities, and added value the private sector brings to the dissemination of traveler information, especially during emergencies.
  • What type of expertise not residing in agencies is needed and when? Expertise that does not exist where a disaster occurs can be brought in prior to or during the disaster. A region, metropolitan area, or state meeting to discuss the communication issues that may be presented during a disaster need to touch upon expertise that may not exist within the region at all. A region experiencing a disaster not typical of that area may need to contact experts in other parts of the country in order to seek advice pertinent to the situation. Examples might include identification of a biological or chemical substance that is the basis of the disaster or expertise in communicating with particular segments of the population, such as particular ethnic or language groups.

Conducting the Workshop

Effectively run workshops require good facilitation and recording of results. A good facilitator keeps the discussion on track with the agenda and time available and provides an opportunity for all participants to provide input and stay engaged in the discussion. Equally important is to have a written record of the discussion for follow-up actions. It is highly recommended that a minimum of two individuals are identified for these separate roles. If resources allow, organizers should consider the use of an experienced facilitator. Multi-jurisdictional workshops can benefit from the presence of a professional facilitator, specifically not associated with any of the agencies sponsoring the workshop. This can make participants feel that no one agency will take precedence in the discussions, and neither benefits nor resource allocation will fall too heavily on one agency. If resources don't permit hiring a facilitator, an alternative would be to enlist an agency employee who does not have a direct stake in the subject matter (or who is not a participant's supervisor) but is known for his/her facilitation skills.

For each discussion item on the agenda, the facilitator will want to have a set of key questions that should be addressed in the workshop.

Key Questions
  • What information is needed, by whom, when, and how?
  • What dialogues need to occur between agencies and personnel and in what order?
  • What do these dialogues trigger - action, response, other?
  • What are the messages being communicated among players in a given scenario?
  • How does information currently flow among the parties that generate or use information?
  • How does the type of disaster affect the information needed and how it flows?
  • Are there sufficient means/mechanisms currently available to provide accurate and timely information to the public? What has been successfully used and what has not worked?
  • What are the procedures that agencies follow to gather, coordinate, and disseminate information in normal situations and how does that differ in disaster situations?
  • What is the protocol that agencies follow for providing information to the media and the public?
  • Is information always relayed through a public information officer or joint information center?
  • What problems arise with regard to information and how are they resolved, such as miscommunication, rumor control, inconsistent information, and delayed information?
  • Are there agreements in place that describe the roles and responsibilities of agencies regarding information dissemination during major disasters?
  • Are there ways in which a Department of Transportation's or other agencies' ATIS assets can serve the purpose of other agencies involved in the response? How would this be coordinated?

As the discussion proceeds through each agenda item, the recorder's role will be to capture information in appropriate formats. Depending upon how each specific agenda item is designed, the records may vary. For example, they might range from a whiteboard list of points contributed on a topic by participants, to individual responses to an exercise to rank certain items, to summaries of breakout groups' discussions. At the end of the workshop, all the records can be accumulated and made available for follow-on use.

Workshop Results: What Happens Next?

The focus of the workshop is to bring the right emergency management, transportation, and communications officials and staff together from multiple agencies to address the need for better communication with the public during disasters. The workshop is not intended as an end in itself, for it should serve as the first step in development of a strategy on how best to use ATIS assets in disaster communications.

During the course of the workshop, participants will most likely identify ideas for improvement and further discussion. Table 5-2 presents several potential recommendations that could emerge during the workshop or in the post-workshop analysis of the records of the workshop discussion. In an attempt to create a list general enough to find merit in a variety of regions, readers will find that some recommendations will fit, some will need to be expanded upon based on local influence and tailored to meet local needs, and others may be dropped from consideration altogether. Those recommendations that are applicable in a given jurisdiction may additionally cover the broader intent of ATIS strategy. A final picture that emerges from the workshops can result in an overall, comprehensive view of the dialogue, from all levels.

Table 5-2. Potential Recommendations for the ATIS Strategy
  • Consider future needs and emerging technologies. ATIS is a field where technology is constantly changing and undergoing improvements. A discussion of how agencies can communicate with the public during emergencies can benefit from an expert familiar with how technologies that drive ATIS are changing, and how these can affect the provision of emergency and traveler information in the future.
  • Coordinate with adjacent jurisdictions. While jurisdictions may have well-thought-out and practiced emergency plans, these may not include communicating with adjacent regions.
  • Examine “push” technologies such as Reverse 911®, text and e-mail alerts. Push technology is by definition geared towards a section of the public who has requested that information be sent when it is relevant, and emergency information can be effectively disseminated widely to those who are already equipped with the devices that can receive information. This could be as simple as using e-mail or pager systems that already exist across multiple agencies, but improving the database of recipients to include major real estate management firms, high-rise complexes, jails and prisons, or younger citizens who tend to be early adopters of technology.
  • Bring private sector information disseminators into the discussion. Private sector disseminators of traveler information, a market sector that is growing significantly both in customers and technology, often enhance their public agency data with those of private sources, and can often provide a more comprehensive view of the event. Recognize them as a true partner in the community. Include them in the development of policies that govern the sharing of traveler information, taking into account that while media outlets may not strictly qualify as true ATIS, they take care of widespread dissemination of information, and their importance in the value chain is firmly established.
  • Disseminate information via website. Traveler information websites run by both the public and private sectors can offer graphical information not available with text-based information.
  • Identify how messages must differ given the scenario. Emergencies come in many different forms, and response to those must differ as well. Development of a comprehensive plan to use ATIS during emergencies must also include a focus on the content of the message. What needs to be communicated when a tsunami is coming vs. after an earthquake has already happened? Consider how the needs of the public differ, as well as their access to different ATIS devices depending on the type of disaster.
  • Identify the different needs of a rural as opposed to metropolitan setting. The ATIS infrastructure is typically more robust in an urban setting, and emergency response and transportation personnel possibly more experienced with its uses. Using ATIS to communicate with the public during emergencies has different implications in rural versus more urban settings.

As a next step, the general recommendations will need to be refined so that a list of action items can be developed for the region. They can be arranged from low-tech to high-tech and from near-term to long-term. This will give the region a variety of actions that can be addressed by different groups or agencies and have the potential of requiring varying levels of commitment, funding, and direction.

Additional Resources

Participants in the workshop will want to assess the extent to which the agencies they represent have been trained and utilize National Incident Management System and Incident Command System/Unified Command as this could have a significant impact on the terminology used during the discussions.

National Incident Management System. In February, 2003, President Bush directed the Secretary of Homeland Security to develop and administer a National Incident Management System (NIMS). The NIMS provides a consistent nationwide approach for federal, state, and local governments to work together effectively to deal with emergencies. The system also intends to include private-sector and non-governmental organizations to work together during emergencies and domestic incidents. FEMA offers courses on NIMS for interested personnel. Further information regarding NIMS can be found online at FEMA's website,

Incident Command System/Unified Command. The Incident Command System (ICS) is a concept designed for the benefit of first and subsequent responders to natural and/or man-made disasters. An ICS facilitates communication and planning by dividing a disaster response into five categories: Command, Operations, Planning, Logistics, and Finance and Administration. ICS may be expanded into a Unified Command (UC) for coordinating response of multiple jurisdictions and allowing responders to adopt a cohesive organizational structure without being hindered by jurisdictional boundaries. Further information on the ICS and UC can be found at

Organizational chart for Unified Command composed of representatives from local jurisdictions. Four categories subordinate to the Unified Command include Operations, Planning, Logistics, and Finance and Administration.

Figure 5-3. Unified Command Structure

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