Office of Operations
21st Century Operations Using 21st Century Technologies Difficult Communication Incidents

During evacuations, communication between all parties (evacuees, the general public, entity staff, etc.) can be difficult and problematic. People and entities have been creative in overcoming these communication problems, for example, the use of personal cell phone calls to neighbors alerting them of the need to evacuate.

Blackouts: 2003 – Communication during a blackout can be problematic. For example, as reported in the Effects of Catastrophic Events on Transportation System Management and Operations: August 2003 Northeast Blackout Great Lakes Region, the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART) had a generator providing power. However, “according to SMART executives, one of the biggest challenges during the blackout was communicating with drivers, paratransit customers, and the public. Even though SMART’s operations center was fully functional, many people had lost phone service, computer access, and had no TV or radio. Messages relayed from SMART managers to the media were a low priority and aired infrequently. Managers were not certain of how many drivers would come in. Furthermore, it was particularly difficult to find out what medical facilities were open. In some cases, drivers physically went to customers’ houses and to clinics to exchange information and call it in to the operations center. In one instance, SMART’s staff was able to coordinate with an area fire department that borrowed vehicles and drivers in order to provide cooling stations for senior centers. In addition, had the blackout persisted longer, other area agencies probably would have relied on SMART for refueling”

Effects of Catastrophic Events on Transportation System Management and Operations also reported that during the Great Lakes region blackout, “Greater Cleveland Regional Transportation Authority experienced failures within its communication system until a backup diesel generator was connected. In particular, the repeaters used to strengthen and extend the signals produced by the agency’s internal radio system failed during the blackout, and not all were connected to backup sources of power. Furthermore, the loss of a key radio tower in the far eastern section of Cleveland left the Greater Cleveland Regional Transportation Authority without its global positioning system (GPS) network. Throughout the blackout, transit employees were able to use their mobile telephones and mobile radios. Traditional telephone service also worked, without break, during the blackout.”

Derailment: Graniteville, South Carolina – On January 6, 2005, a derailment of a train carrying chlorine gas spilled its contents in Graniteville, South Carolina. People working in the plant (scene of the incident) and residents living nearby were evacuated. The San Francisco Chronicle article “Deadly Chlorine Gas Gone—But Fear Hangs Over Hard-Hit Town: Some Residents Warily Return Home After Train Wreck” reported one survivor: “Lamar Ledford, a night-shift worker at Avondale Mills, described watching white patches spread across the clothes on his body while he waited for a 911 operator to tell him it was safe to leave the building. His cell phone began to corrode in his hand, he told television crews, and he called his mother to tell her he wanted to be cremated.” According to the article, “chlorine corrodes copper elements in telecommunications equipment and computer chips, and it can disable a 911 service under some circumstances.”

Hurricane Floyd: 1999 – During Hurricane Floyd, communication proved to be problematic. The Coastal Heritage article “Floyd Follies: What We’ve Learned” reported: “South Carolina’s leaders were not able to receive basic information about traffic flow. Various South Carolina agencies used incompatible radio systems and frequencies, and cell phones were unreliable at peak usage times. So when vehicles got stacked up for miles, top public-safety officials couldn’t communicate with personnel on the ground and didn’t know the extent of the problem. ‘We had a failed, fractured communications system,’ says state ‘traffic czar’ Captain Harry Stubblefield of the South Carolina Highway Patrol. ‘We didn’t have a good feel for monitoring [the evacuation], and we couldn’t give our commanders the big picture to let them know what was going on.’”

Loma Prieta Earthquake: 1989 – During the Loma Prieta, California, earthquakes, normal communication and transportation systems were disrupted. According to Riding Out Future Quakes: Ideas For Action: Improving Planning of transportation Providers, Government, Utilities and Businesses for Post-Earthquake Transportation Disruptions in the San Francisco Bay Region, communication was difficult to provide: “During the first hours following Loma Prieta, the Red Cross units in the Bay Area were unable to effectively communicate with each other. Movement of critical supplies and personnel were delayed by a combination of lack of knowledge of priorities (created by lack of effective communication systems), disrupted transportation routes and in the next few days, and traffic jams created by the loss of vital commute routes.”

Southern California Wildfires: 2003 – Some evacuees were not informed of the need to evacuate by officials, they were informed by neighbors during the southern California wildfires. According to Fire Lessons Learned in California,“One family warned their neighbors to leave. The blaze was moving so fast the community hadn’t received official word, and had to rely on its own judgment.”

Terrorist Attacks: September 11, 2001 – During the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York City communication networks were overwhelmed. As reported in America’s Traveler Information Number: Deployment Assistance Report #3: 511 and Homeland Security, “Immediately following the September 11 attacks, landline and cellular telephone services became unreliable, apparently as a result of overload. In Lower Manhattan, the situation on September 11 with regard to using telephone service was compounded by damage to a Verizon central hub, resulting in the loss of 200,000 phone lines, cellular sites knocked out, local telephone switching office damaged, fiber optic transport equipment crushed, and high-speed internet service down for many companies because of power failures. Not only did this make it difficult for callers to get access to travel information, it also impacted the ability of agencies to communicate between office and field staff, and to share information with other agencies.”

According to Saving City Lifelines: Lessons Learned in the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks, communication was chaotic during the terrorist attacks: “Communications were impossible in the chaos at the scene, so people did what they had been taught to do in drills. Training was critical. A report later commissioned by the New York Police Department to review its performance on 9/11 was critical of police response but gave high marks to the transit police who had received specialized training in disaster response.”

Saving City Lifelines also reported: “personal cell phones and makeshift equipment enabled [the] Metropolitan Transportation Authority to maintain communications with [the] Office of Emergency Management and other critical partners in the rescue and response effort’s earliest hours.”

During the 9/11 terrorist attack in Washington, DC, the local transit agencies had to operate with limited information regarding the incident. According to Effects of Catastrophic Events on Transportation System Management and Operations: Cross-Cutting Study, “The transportation agencies had to respond to the attack and subsequent partial evacuation by closing certain key transportation facilities near the Pentagon and other strategic locations in the nation’s capital, redirecting transit assets, and coordinating these closing and changes with other agencies. This was all happening during a time when the voice communications networks were overwhelmed with demand and accurate information on closings and redeployments was scarce.”

February 7, 2006
Publication #FHWA–HOP-08-015