Using Highways During Evacuation Operations for Events with Advance Notice

Routes to Effective Evacuation Planning Primer Series

Produced in collaboration with the Intelligent Transportation Systems Joint Program Office (ITS JPO)

Using an Evacuation Concept of Operations (CONOPS) as a Foundation

In planning for evacuation operations, emergency managers, transportation officials, and other stakeholders should use a common CONOPS as an organizational framework that clarifies stakeholder roles, coordination processes, and common actions or considerations in various operational phases. The evacuation CONOPS should complement the one used by the emergency management community to plan for multi-functional responses to disasters and emergencies. The use of the CONOPS aids evacuation planners in developing plans and coordinating all evacuation planning and operations with multiple stakeholders at various levels, including emergency management, public safety, and other readiness and response operations personnel.

In its simplest form, a CONOPS is a “who, what, where, when, how, and why” document.

  • Who will perform the task?
  • What task will be performed?
  • Where will the task be performed?
  • When will the task be performed?
  • How will the task be performed?
  • Why does the task need to be performed?

Many different players from diverse organizations—depending upon authorities, assets, and knowledge—will represent the transportation function in designing the CONOPS. In short, the CONOPS should lay the foundation for any complex planning process, including the development of the response and evacuation plans.

To develop a CONOPS for evacuation planning, the highest political authority over a local government, region, or State should designate an agency to lead the planning effort and convene a panel of the heads of other local or statewide agencies including transportation to develop a strategic plan. Participants should identify all activities that must occur and the resources needed by each agency to accomplish their assigned tasks. A clear statement of the responsibilities and authority of the roles of each primary and supporting agency should be identified. Throughout this process, information collection, analysis, coordination, and dissemination are vital as strategic and contingency evacuation planning occurs.

It is impossible to prescribe a standard process to develop an evacuation CONOPs since no two jurisdictions have the same political structure. For instance, in one state (e.g., in Maryland), the DOT may have licensing agencies and transit authorities within its organization. In another State these agencies may be housed outside of the DOT (e.g., in Florida). A State DOT may have access to its own debris removal equipment, but more importantly, may have contractual agreements with private entities to perform such work. The statewide DOT will likely have VMS under its control, but also may have contractual agreements with private companies that can supply additional VMS for rural routes. The identification and availability of buses for mass transit and the identification of transportation-dependent individuals all may lie within multiple agencies. Individual agency operations and how they should accomplish assigned tasks, the day-to-day specificity natural to any discipline, will often be contained within annexes to the CONOPS.

The Importance of Continuity of Operations (COOP) and Continuity of Government (COG) Planning to Evacuations

In addition to the CONOPS, each State should maintain and update its contingency plans, particularly its COOP and COG, to ensure that essential services continue to be provided following an event. A catastrophic event may cause considerable damage to a government’s infrastructure and disrupt operations, including transportation services. Redundant systems must exist to allow any operation to continue should the designated EOC or TMC be uninhabitable. The transfer of authority, leadership, resources, and information should be seamless and planned for well in advance of a major event. A jurisdiction’s and agency’s laws and regulations should include an order of succession. By making all stakeholders aware of these orders of succession, leadership can continue unimpeded during the event. It is critical that the transportation community be involved in COOP and COG planning, since a failure to plan for continuing transportation and traffic management services following a catastrophic event would impact a jurisdiction’s ability to perform evacuation operations.

Evacuation Route Planning

Although specific evacuation routes cannot be finalized until the geographic scope of a natural or man-made disaster is determined, the use of evacuation routes can be planned in advance and analyzed for continued viability during the operation. Planners should identify routes that have a high probability and feasibility of use considering their survivability, ease of restoration, functional service, and strategic location. Planners should also analyze potential bottlenecks, barriers, scheduled work zones, and other potential problems in advance to determine an evacuation route. Control points can be planned, ensuring sufficient staging capacity for emergency services, crossovers and turnarounds for contraflow, and ingress to affected areas. Planners must determine highway capacity—or the number of vehicles that can pass a certain point on the highway in a specified period of time under prevailing road and traffic conditions. Planners must also consider transit vehicles evacuating those with special needs. Planners must use accurate census data combined with vehicle ownership data to provide an approximation of the number of road users during the evacuation. However, planners cannot simply determine the number of people and vehicles to be moved, divide by the highway capacity, and determine the amount of time needed to evacuate an area. Planners must produce spatial and temporal distribution models, plan for traffic incidents, and take into account human nature. For example, many people may be away from their homes and need to commute against traffic to reach home and gather their families and belongings before they begin to evacuate. Conversely, ”shadow evacuations” occur when people decide to evacuate prior to notification or choose to evacuate even when they are not in harm’s way. Rather than providing a benefit to planners by significantly reducing the number of people that need to be moved at the time of notification, this group may reduce the anticipated carrying capacity of the highway system in advance of the notification.

Disaster preparedness is an exercise in behavior modification, for the public as well as governmental agencies. People evacuating tend to use the routes most familiar to them, and have a preconceived notion of how long it takes to negotiate the route. Many transportation agencies have conducted travel-time reliability studies for existing infrastructure. In other words, people know, “on average,” how long it should take to drive a given route at a given time. Planners should take into account human nature when dispelling these preconceived notions during a time of crisis and communicating changes frequently and by a variety of means available to the traveler in all stages of their movements. Alternate routing and associated travel times must be well communicated continually during preparedness exercises. Early road planners built systems to provide easy access to a centralized hub. Many provided a beltway around the city as a bypass route and connector to other major arterials. The purpose of an evacuation is to move people away from the incident or potential “danger” zone. However, planners may find that an initial movement towards the incident will serve as a means to access major arterials, and may be the most effective way to move large volumes of traffic. Modifying behavior may be the most difficult task facing emergency managers.

In July 2006, the Harvard School of Public Health conducted a High-Risk Area Hurricane Survey of 2,029 adults in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas. The transportation-related questions and results are shown in the text box.

There were a number of reasons cited in the Harvard study of why people would not evacuate, and some were transportation related including people who do not have a car or know anyone who could give them a ride (12 percent), evacuating could be dangerous (36 percent), and roads too crowded to leave (54 percent).

ITS, described in detail in the “ITS Equipment to Aid Evacuation” section of this primer, should be used during planning efforts to identify vulnerabilities in the transportation system in order to adopt strategies as countermeasures to these vulnerabilities. ITS includes the set of technologies that are used on a day-to-day basis to collect and disseminate transportation-related information between vehicles, the roadway, the environment, transportation system managers, and system users. During the course of the event, ITS can be used to monitor the progress of the evacuation and as a tool to direct resources to problem areas. To achieve the maximum benefit from ITS tools, ITS must be extended throughout the evacuation route to the point of sheltering.

The use of modeling and analysis tools can provide planners with a means to apply different disaster-related scenarios to an event, thereby providing the opportunity to develop alternative means to evacuate. Although there are a number of modeling and analysis tools available, none are robust enough at this time to provide real time information during an event. Modeling tools are discussed in the “Evacuation, Weather, and Assessment Monitoring and Prediction Tools” section of this primer.

Once the evacuation plan is developed, it must be communicated to the public so that they know what to do when an evacuation order is given. They must know what to take with them when they evacuate, what highway routes to use for evacuation, the locations of nearby shelters, and alternate means of evacuating if they have no vehicle or have special transportation needs. It is not enough to just distribute the information; agencies need to ensure the information is well understood by the public. The City of New York published a new Coastal Storm Plan for hurricanes in August of 2006. The plan and a Geographic Information System (GIS) evacuation zone map were distributed to all residents in the designated hurricane evacuation zones, which are based on the likelihood of storm surge impact. The brochure “Ready New York: Hurricanes and New York City” explains the plan and is posted in 11 languages on the New York City Office of Emergency Management website and is also available in an audio format. However, despite the City’s widespread outreach, many residents were unable to identify the evacuation zone they lived in or how to get to the evacuation center closest to their home according to a survey of 178 residents, both English and Spanish speakers, in the evacuation zones, conducted by the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Many of the individuals surveyed have limited education and this must be taken into account when preparing and distributing information for the public on evacuations.

Coordinating Plans and Needs with Regional, Corridor, and State Partners

Local evacuation plans must be coordinated with neighboring jurisdictions since they may be impacted by any decision to evacuate an area. Jurisdictions need to mutually understand each other’s plans and role and resource expectations to work together smoothly. Their assistance may be needed to execute the evacuation. Local plans also should be shared with the State, as local government may need to request State resources to assist with an evacuation. Similarly, State plans should be coordinated with neighboring States, as evacuees may travel to another State to seek shelter or mutual-aid may be requested from another State.

In addition to the planning conducted by existing organizations and networks, some jurisdictions may consider establishing and activating EOTs to organize and execute tactical evacuation operations. Whether a stand-alone organization, or a subset of personnel from an existing working group, an EOT should work with transportation officials and emergency managers throughout the planning process on activities such as:

  • Developing Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for communication among EOT members and the EOC during an evacuation event. This may include how the TMC should work with the EOC if located separately.
  • Working with government and private sector representatives to pre-identify staging areas, points of departure for mass transit, evacuation routes, and reception areas.
    Reviewing existing evacuation and emergency management plans across agencies to identify gaps and opportunities for the EOT to assist.
  • Participating in regular evacuation-related training and exercise activities.
  • Adapting ITS and other transportation tools to handle specific evacuation operational functions.
  • Identifying additional assets and partners to provide support during evacuations, and establishing mutual-aid agreements as needed.