When PennDOT is notified of a crash or unplanned interruption on our roadways, it sets off a chain of activity designed to alert motorists, increase the safety of first responders, and decrease the possibility of secondary crashes. Prior to a pilot project between PennDOT and the Clearfield and Centre County 911 centers, that notification could take 30 minutes or more, delaying alerts to motorists and creating back logs that could have been avoided.
In 2016, seeing a need to decrease the reaction time and make the process more efficient, Clearfield County 911 Coordinator Jeremy Ruffner discussed an idea with PennDOT Central Region TMC Manager Dennis "Denny" Prestash and his team. The thought was that if they could somehow establish a direct connection between the two locations, PennDOT could access the 911 Center's Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) WebView program, allowing traffic control specialists to see 911 incidents as they are being created.
"The hardest part of this idea was seeking and receiving the approval to install a microwave antenna on the roof of the Central Region Traffic Management Center (CRTMC)," Prestash said. The antenna was needed to establish the direct connection with the 911 center's computer system. "Once I described the idea, and the potential for increasing safety on our roadways, the installation was approved within three hours! Jeremy installed the antenna the next day with the help of District 2's IT unit and three days later the connection was made. In less than a week we started to receive data in real time."
Before the direct connection, staff at the CRTMC were listening to scanners and calling the 911 center for more details, creating a barrier for 911 operators as they worked to address the emergency. Both agencies quickly recognized the value to receive information from dispatch faster, and the need for an instant feed. Today, PennDOT's CRTMC staff can see incidents affecting our roadways as they are being created and 911 operators can see live feeds for traffic cameras in their county without any phone call being exchanged. Both agencies are getting the same information, at the same time, which allows PennDOT to immediately implement their Intelligence Transportation System (ITS) sending out alerts through dynamic message signs, highway radio advisories, traffic cameras, and more. Simultaneously, staff are entering incident information into PennDOT's Road Condition Reporting System (RCRS), which automatically feeds popular traffic apps such as 511PA, Google Maps, and Waze, reducing the occurrence of secondary crashes and roadway congestion. Today's process takes just 10 minutes or less from the time of the incident until the notifications are complete.
"It wasn't until the project was fully implemented that I noticed how well the relationship between 911 and the CRTMC was working," said Ruffner, who is also a volunteer with his local fire station. "While responding to an incident on Interstate 80, we passed the dynamic message sign which was a mile or two before the incident. To my surprise and amazement, the sign was already updated and alerting traffic to the incident ahead. Motorists were moved into the left lane, passing the emergency, and there was no traffic backlog. The system was working how it should!"
Additionally, PennDOT was able to do a before-and-after analysis on the average "incident influence times" for I-80 in Clearfield County. An incident influence time is calculated from the time the incident occurs on the roadway until the traffic flow goes back to normal conditions. When looking at the same six-month period, the time motorists had to sit in congestion was reduced by 93 minutes with the implementation of the direct CAD feed. This information further highlights the importance of timely ITS responses to aid first responder arrival on scene, and ultimately, improving the overall safety for motorists on our roads.
After the success of the piloted partnership, the program was expanded in November 2018 to include Centre, Elk, McKean, Cameron, and Huntingdon counties. In 2019, Clinton County has been added and there are plans to add Mifflin, Blair, Cambria, Snyder, Union, and Northumberland counties to the project. Access is based solely on the available technology in each county 911 center. Several counties do not have the available upgrades, but they have expressed interest in partnering once their systems are updated.
In addition to the direct-data connection, an incident email notification system was also implemented with Clinton, Mifflin, Centre, Potter, Lycoming, Sullivan, Somerset, Tioga, Montour, and Columbia counties. When a 911 dispatcher categorizes an incident as anything that would impact a roadway, this additional tool sends an email directly to operations staff within the CRTMC, also significantly reducing the awareness time of incidents. With the success the central region has seen with this project, there are plans to eventually expand statewide.
Photo: Jeremy Ruffner, left, and Denny Prestash in the Clearfield County 911 Center.