ROADS/BRIDGES: Va. DOT preps for mountain tunnel emergency scenarios

Nov. 11, 2015

Contingency plans are in the offing regarding how to handle emergency response on the state’s I-77 tunnels

The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) and Transportation Operation and Management LLC (TOM), which is VDOT’s partner in emergency response for the state’s I-77 mountain tunnels, recently hosted a training exercise involving real-world possibilities in effort to draw up emergency response and contingency plans.

According to VDOT Communications Manager Michelle Earl, various scenarios were put into play, including an accident with 4-hour delays on a major holiday weekend and a truck losing its load inside the tunnel on a snow day, each of which was reviewed and discussed among local fire, police, Virginia Department of Emergency Management, Virginia State Police and VDOT representatives.

“Every scenario presented different challenges, agency responses and communication needs,” said Tim Martin, VDOT Regional Traffic Operations Manager. “By staging these scenarios we see where the gaps may lie and what needs to be done to prepare should the scenarios actually occur.”

VDOT and TOM held two scenarios this past fall, one specific to East River Mountain Tunnel and one for Big Walker Mountain Tunnel. “It was beneficial to hold separate exercises because the tunnels are distinct,” Martin said. “With East River Mountain Tunnel being shared between the two states, it presents communications challenges that may not be the same for Big Walker Mountain Tunnel.”

Martin went on to stipulate that earlier mock exercises had led to beneficial changes, such as the addition of the fire trucks and trained fire staff at each tunnel as well as the addition of a radio system at each tunnel to communicate with first responders.

I-77 Big Walker Mountain Tunnel opened to traffic in 1972, and East River Mountain Tunnel in 1974.