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|Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 68 · No. 2 > I-95 Shutdown Coordinating Transportation and Emergency Response|
I-95 Shutdown Coordinating Transportation and Emergency Response
by David Buck, Breck Jeffers, and Alvin Marquess
Emergency planning, unified command, and communication are key to managing a high-profile crash on I–95 near Baltimore, MD.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 23 percent of the U.S. population lives in the I–95 corridor States between Virginia and Maine, and the Maryland Transportation Authority (MdTA) estimates that about 200,000 vehicles travel the road daily in Maryland. The interstate is the main link between Baltimore and the Washington, DC, metropolitan area, including northern Virginia and Maryland, making it a critical artery for north-south traffic and freight flow on the East Coast.
At 2:45 p.m. on Tuesday, January 13, 2004, a fuel tanker traveling south on Maryland's I–895 (the Harbor Tunnel Thruway) plunged over the New Jersey barrier-shaped concrete bridge rail on an overpass and landed on the northbound lanes of I–95 just south of Baltimore. When the tank truck's trailer–a cylinder filled with gasoline–crashed over the bridge's concrete barrier, it pulled the cab down with it and, on impact, burst into a gigantic ball of flames.
Division Chief David Murphy of the Baltimore County Fire Department noted that the thick wall of smoke from the explosion was so large and high that it was visible for 40 kilometers (25 miles). The crash shut down both the north and south lanes of I–95 immediately. Four vehicles traveling on I–95 were engulfed in the intense fire. Four lives were lost, that of the truck driver and three people in the vehicles caught in the wake of its crash. One man miraculously escaped from his vehicle and ran through the fire to safety.
Ultimately, the incident called on the coordinating abilities of multiple response teams, emergency management systems, and sophisticated intelligent transportation networks. "An event the size of this fuel truck crash can affect transportation and freight on the entire East Coast; therefore, it drew national attention," says Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) Maryland Division Administrator Nelson Castellanos. "With advanced technology, established partnerships, and an incident response plan, [the Maryland State Highway Administration and several other agencies were] able to contain the incident, reroute traffic, and reopen I–95 quickly."
Speed and Cooperation
Within minutes of the explosion, the Maryland State Police began receiving calls about the incident from motorists dialing #77 on their cellular phones, and fire and police departments from multiple jurisdictions reported to the scene and its vicinity.
An emergency response technician with the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) happened to be driving toward the bridge at the time the truck jumped the overpass. He alerted SHA's Statewide Operations Center and immediately began to shut down the road and redirect traffic. Staff at the SHA operations centers north and south of the incident and at multiple centers in nearby States launched systems to redirect traffic around and away from I–95.
Simultaneously, the Operations Center at the Maryland Transportation Authority (MdTA), which maintains Maryland's seven toll facilities, began to redirect traffic on I–895. Four minutes after the crash, as emergency response vehicles and personnel left their respective stations, Maryland's Coordinated Highways Action Response Team (CHART) changed variable message signs along the I–95 corridor and other feeder interstates in Maryland to inform motorists that I–95 near Baltimore was closed and offer alternate routes.
SHA and local police lost no time setting up the predetermined detours for affected travelers. At 2:57 p.m., staff in the SHA traffic operations centers followed established procedures to alert local police and redirected motorists traveling northbound on I–95 to MD 100, and moved southbound traffic to I–195. The traffic operations centers contacted nearby highway maintenance facilities and mobilized preoutfitted trailers–each loaded with signage, cones, flares, generators, and other specialized equipment needed to reroute traffic at the scene–to the north and south sides of the incident.
Meanwhile, firefighters arrived to find smoke, flames, and heat so intense that it was difficult to know exactly what was inside it all. Emergency responders on both sides of the crash could barely see one another's flashing red lights through the dense smoke.
CHART personnel updated their Web site (www.chart.state.md.us, also accessible through www.marylandroads.com), county police moved to close access ramps onto the interstate north and south of the incident, and staff at the statewide operations center initiated the communications to retime signals on local roadways that would accommodate changed traffic flow on the alternate routes. Other DOTs–in Delaware, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Washington, DC–activated highway signs to alert motorists about the incident. Up and down the corridor, independent and fleet truckers and couriers received information about the crash through the I–95 Corridor Coalition–a network of transportation agencies, toll authorities, and law enforcement agencies that, among other things, redirects motorists traveling on I–95 in the event of potentially long shutdowns.
As the evening wore on, more assistance arrived, including investigative teams from the Maryland State Police, the National Transportation Safety Board, and MdTA. Additional SHA highway maintenance crews and specialists from the Maryland Department of the Environment also reported to the scene. Their cooperative efforts facilitated reopening two of the four southbound lanes 4 hours after the incident occurred. By 3:30 a.m. on January 14, just a little over 12 hours from the time of the incident, all northbound and southbound lanes reopened. The backup of diverted traffic never reached more than 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) long, which is common during a normal evening rush hour.
"Governor Robert Ehrlich was in constant contact with us throughout the night, and he made sure that every State resource was available to deal with the aftermath of the incident and safely reopen I–95," says Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan. "The fact that traffic was flowing on the highway well before the morning rush hour is a tribute to the teamwork and professionalism of the men and women on the scene. They did a fantastic job."
Sergeant Rick Vecera of the Maryland State Police attributes the successful management of the crash to the preparedness and cooperation of those who addressed the emergency and managed the related transportation issues. "Three factors contributed significantly to the operation's success," he says. "The SHA's high-tech operation centers are fully equipped for efficient information management not just locally, but up and down the I–95 corridor. Post-9/11 training has accelerated and enhanced multijurisdictional cooperation and planning. In addition, emergency response staff and transportation managers in the area know one another personally through established professional networks and near-daily interactions during the profusion of planned and unplanned events in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, DC."
Incident response represents the heart of Maryland's traffic management program. In the early 1980s, SHA implemented its "Reach the Beach" initiative to improve traffic flow during the peak travel season on roadways leading to the beaches on Maryland's Eastern Shore. By the late 1980s, Maryland officials recognized the need for local traffic operations centers to address the ever-growing congestion in the State's metropolitan areas. By 1989, SHA opened its first traffic operations center to address severe congestion along I–495 near College Park, thus giving rise to what would become the CHART initiative.
Also during the mid-1980s, SHA mapped the Maryland interstate system, interchange by interchange, and identified alternative routes in case vehicles would have to be directed off the interstate. SHA vetted its draft plans with local police, fire, and maintenance crews–the people most familiar with the State's secondary road systems. In 1986, SHA and its partners approved the first Freeway Incident Traffic Management plan and distributed it throughout the State to the appropriate agencies. SHA updates the plan regularly to keep pace with changes in the State's transportation network.
"During a crisis, there is no time to plot detours and assess impacts on intersections," says Sergeant Vecera. "Our tactics are worked out under cool and rational conditions so the plan is ready to be deployed in an emergency. Preparations like the ones in the [Freeway Incident Traffic Management] plan are crucial to traffic management when we experience a shutdown like we had when I–95 was closed by the tanker explosion."
Today CHART no longer focuses on a single need but assists with highway management systems statewide. The response team is now a multiagency organization with a governing board featuring representatives from SHA, the Maryland State Police, MdTA, FHWA, and local governments.
"When the fuel truck exploded on January 13," says State Highway Administrator Neil J. Pedersen, "the systems and teamwork established by CHART were a critical part of the efficient response that helped motorists move to alternative routes and make informed decisions about travel."
SHA also manages its advanced intelligent transportation systems (ITS) through CHART, with the statewide operations center serving as the "hub" for information received from closed-circuit televisions and road sensors–the early indicators of traffic congestion or incidents. A critical component of information sharing is the CHART Web site (www.chart.state.md.us), which typically registers an average of 750,000 to 1 million hits per week. On January 13, the site logged 400,000 hits in a single day.
The #77 cellular call-in system, used extensively by motorists every day–as well as on the day of the incident–is managed by the Maryland State Police and handles approximately 10,000 calls annually. These ITS technologies bolster CHART's information-sharing capacity and give its members the tools to inform motorists and redirect traffic away from the scene of an incident almost instantaneously. CHART also connects directly to other regional systems, so I–95's closure was broadcast far beyond the State's borders.
Managing the Fire
Fire companies from Howard and Baltimore Counties dispatched several trucks in response to the 911 calls. Because the event was close to the county line, they did not know who had jurisdictional control until they arrived at the scene. (The Patapsco River forms the border between Baltimore and Howard Counties, with Howard County to the south.) The crash scene was on the south side of the river, putting the fire in Howard County's jurisdiction and the role of incident commander in the hands of Chief Joseph Herr of the Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services.
More than 30,283 liters (8,000 gallons) of flammable liquid, tires, and even the asphalt made fighting the fire a monumental challenge. Fortunately, the incident occurred only a few kilometers from the Baltimore/Washington International Airport (BWI). After arriving on the scene and witnessing the intensity of the fire, the county fire units radioed the BWI Fire and Rescue Department to request use of its crash truck, which is equipped with foam.
"The foam acts like a blanket that quickly controls a fire where flammable liquids are present," says Deputy Chief Garry Pace.
BWI's crash truck was on the scene by 3:43 p.m. According to Deputy Chief Pace, the BWI Fire and Rescue Department started pumping more than 2,000 liters (550 gallons) of foam concentrate to rein in the flames.
Local fire units supported the crash truck and crew by shuttling more than 45,000 liters (12,000 gallons) of water from the nearby Patapsco River to mix the foam. The BWI truck had the majority of the fire under control within 1 hour. The fire equipment from the two counties remained to extinguish small fires that continued to burn and to control brush fires on the hillside adjacent to I–95.
Establishing a unified command–taking into account the missions of all responding agencies when making decisions at the scene of an incident–is the job of the incident commander. (See "Coordinating Incident Response," March/April 2004 issue of Public Roads.) The incident is partitioned into manageable tasks, and the best qualified response resources are assigned to each need. The organizational structure expands and contracts according to the severity and circumstances of the incident, facilitating a smooth transition of authority during multiagency operations and ensuring that all activity is conducted under a single chain of command. Much like a relay race, once a particular phase is complete, the baton (or authority) passes to the next organization. This approach ensures the safety of responders, crash victims, and motorists, while responders mitigate the impact of the incident on traffic flow and the surrounding community.
Characteristic of the unified command structure, fire and rescue emergency response agencies sometimes are the first on the scene of an incident and normally are the first lead agencies to establish incident command. In the Maryland crash, therefore, the first incident command was established under Chief Herr, who managed the crash within a familiar and practiced organizational structure that is standard for most emergency response situations. Says Major Bill McMahon of the Howard County Police, "There are certain templates put into place to mobilize the command structure, so even though incidents are different, the process transfers from one experience to another."
The command structure helps determine who is in charge of what. For a minor fender-bender involving one blocked lane, the response could be minimal, involving two or three trucks to help control traffic. For more complex incidents, like the I–95 crash where a section of a major highway is shut down, the magnitude of the response will be much greater.
On January 13, with more than 20 agencies at the crash scene and controlling traffic in the surrounding areas, the unified command enabled responders to address the situation quickly and efficiently. Chief Herr's first moves were to meet with leaders from all the attending agencies, establish his command, and assess the situation from the multiple viewpoints represented. Since no rescues were possible, Chief Herr and the other incident commanders established five priorities to ensure continued safe and efficient operations for the duration of the event.
(Note that the top priority would have shifted to a rescue mission if there were any survivors.)
The agency leaders met with Chief Herr every 30 minutes and eventually every hour. They set goals to be met before the next meeting and delivered progress reports. "Everyone in the unified command was ready to be a leader or a supporter, depending on the changing roles as the incident needs changed," Chief Herr says. "Throughout the night we saw people step up in anticipation of each other's needs, while others stepped back to allow for a shift in responsibility."
The unified command was needed for the investigative portion of the incident as well. The crash involved two different interstates, I–895 and I–95, under the control of the MdTA Police and Maryland State Police respectively. Representatives from both departments agreed to conduct a joint investigation, with MdTA taking the lead. The joint investigation would help alleviate confusion, avoid duplication of effort between the jurisdictions, and speed up the process.
After the fire was under control and Chief Herr deemed the area safe, the incident command switched to MdTA's Chief Gary McLhinney for purposes of the investigation. Despite the complexity of the crash and its geographic location, the unified command facilitated an organized and effective approach to managing the incident.
Managing the Press
Managing the flow of information away from the scene was another challenge. The incident stirred interest from press across the Nation, with about 25 reporters representing radio, television, and print gathered at the scene to collect information. The incident commander turned to public information officers dispatched to the scene to assist with controlling the information released to the public.
Several public information officers were at the crash site–from SHA, the fire and rescue departments, the Maryland State Police, and the MdTA Police to name a few. Major Greg Shipley, spokesman for the Maryland State Police, took the lead and immediately designated a media briefing area. He identified and met with the other information officers, and everyone agreed to cooperate in regular briefings with the media. All participated in the unified command meetings and then met afterward to determine the new information appropriate for public disclosure. The incident commander cleared the messages to the media. Throughout the evening, each public information officer was responsible for disseminating information under the purview of his or her respective organization.
Using Maryland's battery of ITS tools, including variable message signs, highway advisory radio, and the Web, traffic managers and police units launched the quick response that moved travelers away from the incident. Later, after the traffic situation was under control, the story of what caused the crash and speculation on the road closure took on new importance. The media became a valuable ally in sharing current information as people turned to news programs at home or switched to radio programs with regular traffic and news updates. "The public depends on accurate and timely information from news reports," says Major Shipley. "We wanted to be sure to keep reporters in the loop as much as possible while remaining sensitive to the investigative aspects of the situation."
By giving joint press updates, Chief McLhinney, the State Police, and Maryland Transportation Secretary Flanagan were able to keep the message clear and prevent rumors and inaccurate information from being reported to the public. Additionally, Secretary Flanagan briefed reporters on the magnitude of the cleanup and anticipated morning traffic impacts, which helped establish realistic expectations for the public. When road crews opened all lanes of I–95 before the next day's morning rush hour, the team exceeded those expectations. Ultimately, the news coverage on the incident response was positive, and The Baltimore Sun published an editorial praising the State and the investment in CHART technology and people.
Within 20 minutes of the incident, SHA personnel and police units implemented traffic detours and disseminated information to motorists about alternate routes. The bulk of the responsibility for detouring motorists fell to SHA, which managed traffic flow away from the interstate. County police assisted by diverting traffic on local roads.
According to Major McMahon, 22 Howard County police officers on the south side of the scene were deployed to 17 traffic posts to move northbound traffic over to the Baltimore-Washington Parkway (MD 295) and U.S. 29. SHA and the Baltimore County Police redirected southbound traffic by diverting motorists from I–95 to I–195 and MD 295. I–895 traffic was detoured to I–695, which is the interstate that encircles Baltimore. The I–695 detour also gave motorists access to the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and I–97 to continue south. Through CHART, SHA staff deployed signal changes that allowed a greater flow of traffic away from the scene on local roads. Cars caught between the detours and the incident cleared the scene within 1 hour from the time of the crash.
According to Major McMahon, the attacks on September 11, 2001, and local weather events like snowstorms and hurricanes have helped law enforcement and emergency response professionals work together in many cross-jurisdictional situations. "In fact," says McMahon, "Howard County has plans for what we call an ‘in-vacuation' that recognizes the traffic effects of what would happen if there was an emergency in Washington, DC, to our immediate south." He attributes part of Howard County's success on January 13 to these preparations for possible terrorist activities.
Once the motorists nearest the scene were evacuated, emergency response and road maintenance equipment were on standby and ready for action as needed. SHA personnel ensured that ambulances, tow trucks, salt and sand equipment, and machinery to repair pavement were staged out of the way but within easy access to the site. At about 7 p.m., the fire units informed the Maryland State Police that two of the four lanes of southbound I–95 could be reopened.
"In Maryland," says Sergeant Vecera, "when an incident involves fire, hazardous materials, or rescue, it is the fire companies who decide when the situation will allow roads to reopen. However, it is seldom a black-and-white decision, so cooperation among all concerned parties at the scene, like we saw on this crash, is what really comes into play."
That cooperation extended to broadcasting the message that two lanes were reopened and mitigating the effects of the inevitable rubbernecking that would take place as motorists passed by the scene. CHART's communications systems updated the information network and variable message signs to inform southbound travelers that lanes were reopened. To minimize rubbernecking, the Maryland State Police requested that SHA move extra dump trucks and variable message signs to the median shoulder between the northbound and southbound lanes to create a wall that blocked the view to passing motorists to help cut down on delays.
Investigation Goes High Tech
Around 7 p.m., Chief Herr declared the scene safe and turned over the role of incident command to Chief McLhinney from MdTA to conduct the investigation. A portion of the work had begun already while the fire was being managed. The Maryland State Police and MdTA Police worked together above I–95 on I–895 to understand why the fuel truck had left the road. Using aerial photos and total stations (mapping equipment) with law enforcement software for investigations, specially trained officers gathered the data needed to conduct a thorough analysis of what had happened.
Today's data-gathering tools enable engineers to create virtual crash scenes for subsequent analyses, rather than keeping the locations closed for on-the-spot evaluations. Having the right technologies and the right people at the right time sped up the investigation. In the past, an investigation of an incident of this magnitude would have required keeping the road closed for considerably longer.
Fifteen weeks after the crash, MdTA released its written report on the incident, and Baltimore's WBAL-TV station aired MdTA's "forensic animation," or reenactment, showing the truck's path as it careened down I–895 and finally over the bridge's concrete barrier. The viewpoint was that of a driver traveling behind the truck. A second animation showed a view from above and how the vehicles on I–95 were caught in the truck's fall.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) also is conducting an independent investigation of the incident. NTSB's examination will include a review of the operational performance of the truck. According to an NTSB news release on April 16, 2004, the final report is expected in 2005, though safety recommendations can be issued any time during an investigation.
Understanding what happened on I–895 was one portion of the investigation; reconstructing the fire scene on I–95 presented other challenges. The fire units were called in for a new purpose–extricating the bodies from the vehicles involved. "We went into the incident with so many unknowns," says Chief McLhinney. "Were there hazardous materials? How many people were in the vehicles? In fact, until we could really begin to pull things apart, we couldn't be certain how many vehicles had been caught in the fire."
As the investigation progressed, the bodies were removed and taken by the medical examiner for identification. Crash team investigators carefully identified the pieces of debris that belonged to each vehicle. Waiting tow trucks rolled in to remove what was left to a secure location for further examination.
"Being able to remove the debris from the scene serves both an investigation and the need to reopen a highway," says Maryland State Police Crash Team Supervisor Sergeant Krah Plunkert. "Away from the scene, investigators sift through the physical evidence in the debris and collect information that brings the crash dynamics together." He indicated that this enables investigators to take their time and make use of lighting during the day to enhance their investigation.
Cleaning Up and Assessing Damage
Late in the evening, with the rush hour long over, SHA began the final phase of its work on the scene. Equipment and engineers stood by in anticipation of the cleanup. Earlier inspections of the bridge on I–895 permitted reopening the ramp from southbound I–895 to southbound I–95 around 11 p.m.
Front-end loaders, dump trucks, and sweepers went to work for the next several hours on I–95. In the early hours of January 14, firefighters endured below-freezing temperatures as they washed the roadway. Because of BWI Airport's foam truck, little damage had occurred to the I–95 road surface. SHA crews laid thermoplastic tape to increase visibility and applied cold patch to areas in the left lane affected by the crash. Shortly after 3 a.m., road crews salted the washed-down areas to prevent freezing, and, at 3:35 a.m., the northbound lanes of I–95 reopened.
According to FHWA Office of Safety Design Director John Baxter, "Traffic incident management embodies FHWA's vital few priorities of safety and congestion mitigation. Our first thought is for the safety of those caught in and near the incident and the safety of the responders at the scene. Our next thought is congestion management and maintenance of the flow of traffic to get people safely to their destinations with minimal delay. Then we think about future opportunities for preventative measures to stop reoccurrence."
The I–95 incident called for assistance from a number of responders, which makes partnerships and team response vital. Since September 11, 2001, transportation personnel, police, firefighters, and their support systems have been alert to the newly realized potential for large disasters that require multi-agency response.
Communications technology was identified repeatedly as one of the weak points during the event. Cellular communications historically are poor in the area where the incident occurred. Connections were hampered further by the large number of people–motorists, police officers, firefighters, and SHA staff–trying to use their cell phones. Fire and police have an alternative–their 800 megahertz radios–but those airwaves, too, were jammed early in the response, and some of the key leaders did not have radios available immediately. Over time, the responders established small workgroups with each assigned specific radio channels for better connections.
Limitations of current communications technology during a large incident continue to be reviewed. The frequent face-to-face meetings held in the command center helped address the problems and further confirmed the importance of establishing a unified command quickly. Other actions that facilitate success and can be adopted routinely in any large-scale operation include identifying the public information officers and a lead spokesperson to centralize the messages delivered to the press. The regular meetings of unit leaders kept everyone at the scene informed and marginalized information coming from multiple directions.
The primary key to success, however, was not a specific act on the night of the incident. "Our success was marked by the rapport and relationships previously established among the police and fire departments, SHA personnel, medics, and engineers. All the personnel acted in the spirit of collaboration and partnership," says Sergeant Vecera. Professional training, cross-jurisdictional workgroups, and planned events in the area offer traffic management personnel numerous opportunities to work together under less pressing conditions. When strong interpersonal relationships are supported by the appropriate technologies and preestablished response routines, the result is a comprehensive system on ready alert, nearly invisible to citizens but significant in its capabilities.
According to Sergeant Vecera, the next morning's rush hour travelers moved through the area as if the incident had never happened. Technology and partnerships had created an environment for success.
David Buck is the media relations manager with the Maryland SHA, a position he has held for more than 2 years. He was a public information officer for SHA before assuming his current position. His responsibilities include coordination and response to media inquiries related to SHA and the Maryland Department of Transportation. Buck began his career at SHA in 1990 as the first operator at the new traffic operations center in Baltimore. He earned a bachelor's degree at Towson University.
Breck Jeffers is the transportation management engineer in FHWA's Maryland Division. He provides guidance and oversight for federally funded ITS projects and programs in Maryland. Jeffers joined FHWA in 1995 and became an ITS engineer in the FHWA New Jersey Division in 1997. Before joining FHWA he was a traffic engineer with the North Carolina Department of Transportation and an ITS engineer with SHA. He holds a bachelor of science degree in civil engineering and a master's degree in transportation from Morgan State University.
Alvin Marquess is the statewide coordinator for incident management operations for SHA. He began his career with SHA in 1981 as an engineering associate. Marquess also worked in the Accident Studies Division and District 3's Traffic Engineering Office. In 1989 Marquess was one of the initial responders and dispatchers working from Maryland's first traffic operations center to coordinate and manage traffic activities in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area. Marquess serves on committees dedicated to incident management, including the I–95 Corridor Coalition and the Seaboard Incident Management Committee.
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