The 100-car pileup with vehicles trapped on a closed interstate overnight.  Situations like this are a travelers’ worse nightmare, make the national news, and often draw the ire of the Governor. For Transportation Systems Management and Operations (TSMO) professionals, it is a helpless feeling to have a major incident in a remote area of the network with vehicles and their inhabitants trapped on an interstate – that has turned into a parking lot.

Challenges abound, including: establishing situational awareness in a location with no ITS infrastructure, ensuring an overloaded emergency response system address those most in need, communicating with those trapped to provide both vital information and peace of mind, and alerting traffic flow upstream of the danger area to reduce the chance of further crashes. In most states, TSMO staff, incident and emergency management personnel simply don’t have the tools to handle these ‘black swan’ events.  But, as the leading transportation agencies in Pennsylvania have demonstrated to its peers, HELP is on the way.

In December 2016, Pennsylvania’s DOT, Turnpike Commission, Emergency Management Agency, and State Police unveiled 511PA Connect, the first-of-its-kind, trapped traveler emergency communications tool (http://www.511pa.com/511paconnect.aspx).  This service is not a mobile app and thus requires no advance action by affected travelers. It uses FEMA’s wireless emergency alerting system to send an alert to mobile phones in the incident area (both the area and the alert are determined by the agency), allows incident response teams to communicate via automated phone call or text message directly with motorists, gives emergency crews a clearer picture of the scale of the problems faced, and provides a systematic way to generate an after action reports for post-event analysis. In the 18-months in operation, the service has been activated 27 times, with over 9,000 trapped travelers registering for communications during those activations. In my 25+ years of experience in transportation operations, I don’t think I have seen a more creative, pragmatic solution to efficiently assist helpless travelers in their time of greatest need.

Establishing 511PA Connect was a major public-private effort.  Information Logistics (ILog) developed and maintains the cloud-based platform that powers 511PA Connect.  INRIX has teamed exclusively with ILog to offer similar turn-key services to other states nationwide – now including INRIX Real-Time Traffic, queue monitoring and Dangerous Slowdown locations.  HELP, the Highway Emergency Link Platform, is available for use across the entire US, with required coordination with FEMA and the major wireless carriers already completed.  Consider HELP an insurance policy, ready to assist when the inevitable black swan event occurs in your state.

INRIX and ILog are hosting a webinar to describe HELP in more detail on June 27, from 1:30 to 3:00 EDT.

Click here to register.

I-78 in Pennsylvania, February 2016 (courtesy of PennDOT)

511PA Connect in action – illustrates the initial alert and registration screens