A clear path

Incident-management program drives hand-in-hand with ITS in Wisconsin

Article May 14, 2015
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In 1995, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) initiated the Traffic Incident Management Enhancement (TIME) Program to improve the safety and efficiency of the freeway system in Wisconsin and to emphasize the importance of incident management in overall system operations.

 

Not only did the TIME Program quickly become the institutional and operational complement to the state’s ITS deployment and infrastructure, it also became the basis for ongoing and emerging initiatives involving Work Zone Safety and Mobility and Emergency Transportation Operations (ETO).

 

The early success of TIME led to receiving an ITS America “Best-Of” award back in 2002 for WisDOT and the program. Over the past 15 years, TIME has matured into an ongoing, sustained, statewide incident-management program and has further evolved into serving as a foundation for dealing with a wide range of emergencies and situations such as traffic incidents, work zones, planned special events and severe weather.

 

The traffic incident-management (TIM) initiative was conceptualized in the late 1980s in a report by the Southeast Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC). The report’s primary focus was consensus building for developing a freeway traffic-management system. However, there also was recognition that a study should be conducted to further investigate traffic incident-management techniques to improve highway operations.

 

In early 1995, WisDOT engaged in a comprehensive study of incident-management problem areas, needs, institutional/organizational structure, improvement strategies and likely benefits. The study was well received, as it was comprehensive in its engagement of incident-management responders and stakeholders. Law enforcement, fire and rescue, highway departments, traffic and public-works officials, transit, media and towing agencies were, and continue to be, active participants.

 

Uniform involvement

The study made several recommendations, such as freeway service patrols, incident-response plans, improved signal coordination, broader special-event-traffic planning and spreading the news about the negative safety, efficiency and productivity impacts of traffic incidents. Yet, the most recognized recommendation was the need to sustain ongoing traffic incident-management activities. As a result, the TIME Program was born. TIME had its first strategic deployment plan developed in 1998 and continues to implement traffic incident-management enhancement strategies as funding and other opportunities exist.

 

John Corbin, director of WisDOT’s Bureau of Traffic Operations and long-standing national TIM advocate, remarked, “TIME was always intended to be the operational complement to the region’s emerging ITS deployments. Through the late 1990s, the state’s ITS infrastructure was largely limited to the southeastern region (Milwaukee area) of Wisconsin. Expansion of ITS infrastructure began with ITS becoming mainstreamed into highway-improvement projects throughout the state. With this geographic expansion came the need to also expand the operational component of the system statewide.”

 

The real catalyst for operational expansion came with the reconstruction of the Marquette Interchange in downtown Milwaukee. Until that time, the WisDOT Traffic Operations Center (TOC) in Milwaukee was typically staffed Monday through Friday from about 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. and also during limited special events. Due largely to the success of the center/system in supporting traffic incident and special-event management, one of the Marquette Interchange traffic-impact mitigation project proposals called for expanding the TOC to a 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week operation. This, combined with the increasing pockets of ITS deployment, was a key factor in WisDOT’s decision to expand the TOC to a true statewide 24/7 operation.

 

With this Statewide Traffic Operations Center (STOC) expansion came the need to also expand TIME from a regional to a statewide program. Beginning with the initial TIM study in the mid-1990s, WisDOT committed to sustaining a comprehensive TIM program as a key component of system operations. This commitment, along with the successes of TIME, enabled a fairly easy expansion of the program.

 

The expansion also was facilitated by the addition of full-time Wisconsin State Patrol (WSP) presence at the STOC. Lt. Tim Huibregtse, the STOC WSP liaison, observed, “The benefits of providing a law-enforcement perspective to traffic operations are significant. Even though the Wisconsin State Patrol is a division under the Department of Transportation, being fully integrated into the daily decisions that are made at the STOC provides efficiencies that ultimately translate into a safer, more efficient highway network.”

 

This direct collaboration between law enforcement and traffic professionals is particularly evident during the routine incident debriefings that are conducted through the TIME Program.

 

Timely guidelines

Since the beginning, TIME placed a heavy emphasis on outreach that included printed materials, videos, exhibits at public-safety conferences/seminars and presentations at numerous transportation professional society functions. This enabled widespread awareness of the TIME Program in Wisconsin and nationally and served as an excellent foundation for expansion to regions outside the Milwaukee area. Other catalysts for expansion include the statewide TIME conferences conducted since 2006, which offered TIM partners opportunities for sharing success stories, lessons learned and enabled enhanced identification of issues and needs for enhancing TIM throughout the state.

 

One of the key products that ultimately originated through input and discussion at the statewide TIME conferences was WisDOT’s “Emergency Traffic Control and Scene Management Guidelines.” This document was prepared in recognition of the dangers associated with TIM response and to promote statewide consistency in safely and efficiently establishing emergency traffic control and scene management for TIM. Since publishing this document in 2008, more than 20,000 copies have been distributed to responders throughout the state. Additionally, through a train-the-trainer approach, the guidelines have been used to train over 600 public and private TIM professionals, including towing and recovery companies.

 

From an implementation perspective, the guidelines also have been applied to countless traffic incidents throughout the state. Paul Keltner, the WisDOT Statewide Traffic Incident Management Engineer, commented, “The June 2009 incident on U.S. 45 in Milwaukee County offers an excellent, real-world example of the utility of the guidelines. A semi-truck on its side blocking all four lanes of southbound traffic at the beginning of the p.m. rush hour easily had the potential to cause significant delay and secondary incidents. Each of the responders did an exceptional job in applying the guidelines’ principles to quickly move the impacted vehicles to the shoulder area and safely open two of the four lanes of traffic.”

 

Huibregtse acknowledged, “Today TIME continues to thrive and is now part of the operational culture for WisDOT and many of their public-safety partners. These groups recognize the positive benefits to traveler and responder safety, transportation system efficiency and economic vitality and are committed to continually looking for ways to improve and enhance TIM activities and the TIME program.”

 

Under reconstruction

The majority of the freeway system in several major metropolitan regions of Wisconsin was built in the 1960s and 1970s, and by the year 2000 had essentially reached the end of its useful life. Not only was there significant deterioration of the freeway infrastructure itself, but also 30- to 40-year-old standards such as left-hand exits that were a serious safety concern. Throughout the 1990s, the state began plans to rebuild much of the system. This major undertaking, Wisconsin’s largest since initially constructing the interstate system, began in 2003 with the five-year reconstruction of the Marquette Interchange in downtown Milwaukee and continues today in other regions such as I-94 from the Illinois state line to Milwaukee and U.S. 41 from the Fox Cities to Green Bay.

 

Initially with the Marquette Interchange in 2003 and continuing with all major work zones today, WisDOT and its public-safety partners have taken a very proactive approach to identifying strategies to mitigate traffic-incident impacts during reconstruction, particularly on roadway segments with reduced capacity. Using the TIME Program as a foundation, WisDOT has comprehensively integrated TIM as a significant operational component of the construction project’s Transportation Management Plan (TMP), as required by the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) updated rule on Work Zone Safety and Mobility (23 CFR 630 Subpart J).

 

Anne Reshadi, the supervisor of WisDOT’s STOC, commented, “This has provided public-safety response agencies with the proverbial ‘seat at the table’ and an opportunity to provide valuable input into the construction schedule, incident/crisis communications, traffic control, incident response and many other operational facets of the projects.”

 

A more recent example of where this collaboration has paid dividends is in the redesign of the Mitchell Interchange near Milwaukee’s airport. The new interchange configuration includes three tunnels, and for compliance with National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards, required the preparation of an emergency-response plan. Reshadi added, “Thanks largely to the long-standing participants of the TIME Program, where transportation and public-safety relationships were already well established, it is fully expected that this response plan will significantly facilitate safe and efficient management of tunnel traffic incidents and other emergencies during construction and in the future.”

 

Traffic incidents and, increasingly, long-term work zones, are typically everyday occurrences in Wisconsin. WisDOT and its public-safety partners regularly respond to these situations and are guided by a variety of internal standard operating procedures as well as strategies born from the TIME Program and work-zone TMPs. Do these routine emergencies adequately prepare transportation and other agencies for more serious, large-scale events? Absolutely. Is this all that is necessary to properly prepare transportation agencies to respond to a crisis? Definitely not, especially in regions of the country that routinely do not experience and have to deal with natural disasters such as hurricanes.

 

Recognizing that the state’s transportation system, whether or not directly affected by an emergency, is always the means by which response and recovery is facilitated, WisDOT again leveraged the relationships established through the TIME Program and launched a comprehensive Emergency Transportation Operations (ETO) Program in the summer of 2007.

 

In Wisconsin, ETO is defined as a coordinated, integrated and performance-oriented approach to operating the state’s transportation system during emergencies. ETO addresses the procedures, processes, technology, roles and relationships used in responding to incidents regardless of whether the transportation system is directly affected by an emergency or crisis. Originally, plans and procedures were focused on improving communication and coordination during winter-weather emergencies, but as development of the plan evolved, the need became apparent for the department’s ETO Program to take an all-hazards approach to emergencies. Specifically, an ETO response is required by the department in the case of “an exceptional event that disrupts the normal flow of traffic on the interstate system or state highway network that requires an extreme response beyond normal daily operating procedures/capabilities or an event that disrupts normal operations/capabilities of a WisDOT business facility.” These events may threaten the safety of staff and the public and/or cause significant property damage. Examples of such events often include:

 

  • A traffic incident such as a crash, spill or major highway closure/blockage;
  • Infrastructure-related incidents and failures;
  • A mass evacuation;
  • Natural disasters such as a weather event, tornado, flood or fire;
  • A facility or IT failure that disrupts operations and requires a response;
  • A potential threat to the safety of WisDOT employees;
  • An act of terrorism or violence against employees or the transportation infrastructure; and
  • A pandemic or other public-health crisis.

 

The guiding principle used for WisDOT’s ETO Program and response is the Incident Command System (ICS). ICS, as part of the National Incident Management System (NIMS), provides a coordinated, consistent and systematic approach to managing emergencies that involve a response from a number of different agencies. The three major priorities of ICS by which every response is guided are:
(1) life safety, (2) incident/event stability and (3) property conservation.

 

“Since initiating the ETO Program, the state has experienced a number of natural emergencies including severe winter weather and extensive widespread flooding,” said Capt.
Brian Rahn, commander of the Wisconsin State Patrol Fond du Lac Post. “These events provided an excellent mechanism to test and fine-tune the ETO roles, procedures and other aspects of the plan. Most importantly, however, are the proactive steps that the department has taken to integrate emergency response into their culture of highway operations.” Rahn added, “The Division of State Patrol and the Department of Transportation as a whole recognize their respective roles in responding to emergencies under unified command and has implemented procedures to facilitate communication and coordination among/between all responding agencies.”

 

These response and recovery efforts include a formal review after the incident, with results used to identify needs and lessons learned, which are integrated into a continuous performance-improvement process.

 

“The WisDOT TIME program offers an excellent example of how a sustained traffic incident-management program can evolve to serve as a foundation for more comprehensive transportation operations, especially those associated with emergencies,” Corbin concluded. “The pre-established relationships among key personnel that enable multiagency, multidiscipline coordination for TIM are often the very same that are required for effective work-zone safety and mobility and emergency-transportation operations. Formal TIM programs strengthen and even broaden the relationships that form the basis of a more secure surface transportation system during any situation.” TM&E

About the author: 
Corbin is the director of WisDOT’s Bureau of Traffic Operations. Cyra is an HNTB fellow and associate vice president of traffic operations/ITS at HNTB Corp. Reshadi is the supervisor of WisDOT’s Statewide Traffic Operations Center.
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