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Publication Number:      Date:  May/June 2001
Issue No: Vol. 65 No. 3
Date: May/June 2001


The ITS Public Safety Program: Creating A Public Safety Coalition

by William Baker and Melissa A. Winn

Everyday, each of us faces the possibility that we, or someone in our families, could be involved in a life-threatening emergency. But we have confidence that our law enforcement, fire protection, emergency medical, and traffic management services will be there - when and where we need them - to keep us out of harm's way or to transfer us to safety. These public safety agencies strive to meet our expectations, but they are under increasing pressure as community needs begin to exceed public safety resources.

The community's transportation infrastructure is particularly affected by emergency incidents. Most emergency incidents involve transportation resources as part of the incident itself - as in the case of a train, air, or highway crash - and/or as part of the response and recovery effort - as in getting emergency personnel to the scene and transporting injured victims to medical facilities.

Public safety and transportation officials recognize that despite significant advances in emergency services over the past couple of decades, major improvements in efficiency and effectiveness can be realized by applying information technologies to incident detection, response, and management. Detection technologies could engage public safety resources sooner, providing swifter medical care to save lives and minimize the consequences of any injuries sustained and reducing any disruption to other users of the transportation infrastructure. Response technologies could speed the delivery of emergency resources to the scene. And developments in on-scene incident management and coordination could increase the safety of emergency personnel and reduce delays in stabilizing, investigating, and clearing the scene.

During the summer and fall of 2000, a group of high-level public safety and transportation officials was brought together by the U.S. Department of Transportation's (DOT) Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) Joint Program Office to consider the interaction between transportation and public safety and to discuss opportunities for using new technologies to enhance community safety.

The ITS program is a federal initiative to apply advanced technologies to improve the safety, efficiency, and effectiveness of the nation's surface transportation network. The ITS program includes a national architecture, which is a master plan to ensure that information generated in one part of the transportation network can be communicated and used in other parts of the system.

While safety has been a central ITS concern since the program's inception in 1992, the formation of the ITS Public Safety Program in 2000 increased this focus. The mission of the ITS Public Safety Program is to increase transportation safety and efficiency by enabling more effective police, fire, and emergency operations. The key goal is to deploy interoperable procedures and technologies for public safety and transportation operations. DOT is facilitating the development of integrated public safety information systems and evaluating the technical feasibility and operational benefits of such systems for resolving traffic incidents.

This new effort links the operations of a number of agencies with concerns about transportation and public safety. Within DOT, the program is coordinated among the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), the Federal Transit Administration, the Federal Railroad Administration, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Beyond DOT, the program is linked closely with the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA).

Despite the involvement of these federal agencies, community public safety is fundamentally a state and local responsibility. Therefore, the ITS Public Safety Program needs to be guided by public safety representatives with the best understanding of and influence on local law enforcement, emergency medical services (EMS), fire departments, and traffic systems.

To provide this guidance, the ITS Public Safety Program Steering Group was formed, and steering group members were selected to represent a cross section of the services involved in public safety and transportation operations. With their background and expertise in public safety and transportation and with an understanding of the potential role of the federal ITS program, the steering group shaped the basic parameters of the ITS Public Safety Program.

The steering group formulated an overall vision for the ITS Public Safety Program. The group determined that while the program may eventually grow to address the comprehensive range of potential transportation emergencies, the immediate focus of the program will be on actual highway incidents.

As a means for laying out an overall approach, the steering group developed a motor vehicle crash scenario to address opportunities for technological intervention to enhance incident prevention, detection, response, scene management, patient transport, and normalization of traffic flow.

Intelligent Vehicle Initiative graphic
The ITS Intelligent Vehicle Initiative is currently developing in-vehicle equipment to prevent incidents such as run-off-the road crashes and rear-end collisions.

Incident Prevention

Although the ITS Public Safety Program has a strong interest in pre-crash issues, the primary initial interest of the program is post-crash. However, the steering group did focus on opportunities to use information technology to prevent incidents from occurring. The ITS Intelligent Vehicle Initiative is currently developing in-vehicle equipment to prevent incidents such as run-off-the-road crashes and rear-end collisions. Similarly, the ITS Public Safety Program is emphasizing public safety operations, such as motorist alert systems to prevent collisions with emergency vehicles and traffic alert devices to advise motorists of the presence of emergency personnel on the roadway at crash scenes.

Detection and Notification

Once a serious motor vehicle crash occurs, the public safety system needs to be engaged as quickly as possible. In many emergencies, this occurs when someone places a 9-1-1 call. The growth of wireless telecommunications offers many potential benefits, but it also brings some challenges.

About one of every three 9-1-1 calls now comes from a wireless phone, and that proportion is rapidly increasing. The benefit is instant on-scene emergency communications, enabling a quicker response and creating an opportunity for dispatchers to give critical instructions to bystanders to enable them to care for injured victims while the emergency personnel are en route. However, the current wireless system cannot automatically locate callers - an essential piece of information for dispatchers.

Automatic Collision Notification Diagram
Automated collision-notification (ACN) systems link to a call center, where operators determine the type of assistance needed and notify the appropriate public emergency response agencies.

The national wireless telecommunications system needs to be upgraded to provide location information while preserving the privacy of wireless users. The Federal Communications Commission has mandated that by October 2001, all cellular/wireless providers must provide geo-location capabilities (the location of the caller) to those public service answering points (PSAPs) with the capability to receive the information.

Another concern regards the number of duplicate calls for the same incident. With the increasing popularity of mobile phones, emergency communications officials report that as many as 25 percent of 9-1-1 calls are duplicate reports of the same incident. Technology is needed to collate these calls and reduce the burden on 9-1-1 centers.

Also, in many incidents, such as single-vehicle rural crashes, there may not be another person at the scene to call for assistance. About one-third of all fatal crashes are single-vehicle rural accidents; therefore, developing a system of automatic incident detection is a high priority for the ITS Public Safety Program.

Already, there are technologies in place that can be integrated into such a system. For instance, mayday systems link vehicles equipped with in-vehicle communications systems to private call centers, where operators determine the type of assistance needed and, when needed, connect the call to the appropriate public emergency response agencies. The mayday system is activated by the deployment of a car's air bag or by pushing an emergency call button.

Several automobile manufacturers now offer mayday systems. General Motors, for example, began factory installation of "OnStar" in 1998. OnStar now has more than 300,000 subscribers, and General Motors projects that the number of subscribers will increase to several million in the next three or four years. ATX Technologies also provides emergency mayday services to many other automobile manufacturers such as Nissan and Mercedes.

Sophisticated automated collision notification (ACN) systems are also capable of providing additional information describing collision severity. Knowing the severity of the crash, emergency personnel can determine the likelihood of severe injury; the nature of the injuries, problems, and/or obstacles they may face; the equipment, supplies, and vehicles that may be needed at the scene; and the trauma support that may be needed at the hospital.

As these devices become more widely available to consumers, there is an immediate need to integrate the operations of private sector mayday call centers (who initially respond to mayday devices) and the more than 6,000 PSAPs who dispatch help to crash scenes in the United States.

The National Mayday Readiness Initiative (NMRI), a component of the ITS Public Safety Program, established consensus for integrating mayday capabilities with the present and future 9-1-1 and EMS systems.

NMRI was co-sponsored by DOT, General Motors, and the ComCARE Alliance. The six-month NMRI initiative was supported by funding from DOT and a grant from General Motors.

This initiative resulted in a set of recommended guidelines released in October 2000. They include guidance regarding new training standards for both public and private emergency dispatchers, a national emergency contact directory, and operational standards for telematics companies.


Emergency response is time-critical. The overall effect of a transportation incident on the community is highly dependent on the time required to get emergency personnel and equipment to the scene, take control of the incident, alleviate hazards, transport victims, and control traffic at the site.

While quick response is critical, sending high-speed emergency vehicles through local traffic has potential costs to the community. The costs include an additional crash risk and traffic delay. Crashes involving responding emergency vehicles are not uncommon. And traffic management methods such as signal preemption (making traffic lights on the route turn green as the emergency vehicles approach the intersection) can cause substantial traffic delays.

Research and technology development are needed to minimize response time without sacrificing community safety or mobility. Potential solutions involving vehicles and infrastructure need to be explored to reduce emergency-vehicle crashes. Precise information regarding the location of the incident, the number of vehicles and victims involved, appropriate patient destinations, nearest water supply for fire suppression, other emergency equipment on scene or en route, optimal routing to the scene, and surrounding traffic conditions would facilitate the delivery of the appropriate amount and type of equipment.

On-Scene Operations

Serious transportation incidents often require a response by several agencies. Emergency medical, fire, and law enforcement personnel from several jurisdictions may be on the scene providing care, managing hazards, and controlling traffic flow. Emergency scenes are highly dynamic situations in which operations require constant assessment and redirection to manage unpredictable dangers. Communication and information-sharing among responding agencies are critical for successful rescue and recovery efforts.

A serious shortcoming noted by the ITS Public Safety Program Steering Group is that communication among agencies is often difficult due to differences in radio format and protocols. Emergency personnel from neighboring jurisdictions frequently cannot reach one another by radio, or they need separate radios to share information with other agencies. Interoperability is critically needed among emergency communications systems - not only among police, fire, and EMS, but with transportation and public works personnel as well.

A number of challenges are preventing progress in this area, including restrictions in available radio bandwidth, aging communications equipment, and limited public safety budgets. Innovative technologies and techniques are needed to address these issues.

Patient Transport

Transportation emergencies frequently involve serious injuries that require prompt treatment at trauma facilities. In recent years, the quality and availability of definitive care have advanced greatly. Trauma care systems have been developed in many states to move injured victims to facilities that provide the appropriate level of care, ensuring that even remote locations have access to the highest level of care needed.

workers at accident
Serious transportation incidents often require a response by several agencies. The ITS Public Safety Program Steering Group noted that communication among agencies is often difficult due to differences in radio format and protocols. Innovative technologies and techniques are needed to address these isues.

However, further improvements in trauma care are possible by communicating patient-care data between the ambulance and the trauma center. Information concerning the specific nature of an injury and patient condition can allow trauma professionals to prescribe early treatment by emergency medical technicians while either on the scene or in transport. Alerting the trauma facility of a patient's impending arrival and condition can also save critical time by allowing the trauma center's staff to gather the appropriate personnel and equipment to fit the patient's needs. Electronic access to patient medical records, either carried by the patient or from a central location, could allow physicians to make more accurate diagnoses or prepare for a patient who needs specialized care.

Traffic Recovery

In dense urban areas or locations with high traffic flow, emergency incidents can have a devastating effect on mobility and commerce. Rapid recovery of safe, routine traffic flow is critical for community well-being and to reduce the probability of secondary incidents caused by traffic interruption.

Reducing incident recovery time requires a rapid exchange of information. In addition, transportation officials need to be promptly involved to ensure that traffic routing is handled efficiently and that roadway clean-up personnel are at the site and are ready for immediate action once the incident is stabilized.

Systems that provide detailed scene and incident information are needed to quickly detect and alert appropriate recovery organizations so that the nearest appropriate resources can be dispatched. Also, traffic routing options need to be prepared for critical roads and highways.

Future of the ITS Public Safety Program

The ITS Public Safety Program has a vision that presents a basic philosophy and approach that will steer the development of the program. Having laid out this broad plan, the steering group is turning to the next priorities - building support and participation from the public safety and transportation constituencies and defining further technical details to guide technology development, demonstration, and implementation.

In fiscal year 2001, the group will be seeking input on the vision through national meetings and technical forums. As consensus builds around specific technical aspects, these concepts will be incorporated into the federal ITS Public Safety Program. Federal support will be directed toward operational tests and evaluation and towards funding implementation through the state and local ITS infrastructure.

This year, the ITS Public Safety Program will begin two field operational tests, incorporating the vision of the program and the NMRI guidelines. The first operational test will be expanding an existing project, the Integrated Incident Management System (IIMS), in New York City. IIMS, in essence, uses first-responder technology to enhance the secondary response. Computers with GIS maps, together with digital cameras, will be placed in 25 police vehicles, enabling the primary responders to an incident, who are most often the police, to exchange information about the scene quickly and efficiently to the second-responder community, including public works agencies and DOTs that need to bring equipment to clean up and manage the scene.

The second operational test will incorporate the NMRI recommendations into a mayday system that will demonstrate effective voice and data interfaces between private-sector call centers (such as OnStar) and PSAPs. This test will demonstrate and evaluate communication approaches that allow telematic service providers to directly access emergency (9-1-1) operators.

To facilitate outreach and feedback, the program will also support the establishment of public safety liaison groups for fire, EMS, law enforcement, traffic management, and emergency communications personnel. These liaison groups will bring together representatives of the range of constituents in each of these fields. Each liaison group will be a focal point for disseminating information about the ITS Public Safety Program and gathering feedback on program direction.

Through the field tests and outreach efforts, the ITS Public Safety Program is trying to form a public safety coalition that will speak with one voice, enabling the united public safety community to compete for its share of funding opportunities.

Over the next couple of years, through the field operational tests and the gathering of input from technical forums and national meetings, the participants in the ITS Public Safety Program hope to realize their vision of a united network of public safety agencies working hand in hand with the transportation community to exchange information and to increase transportation safety and efficiency.

William Baker works in the ITS Joint Program Office and is the ITS Public Safety Program coordinator.

Melissa A. Winn is assistant editor of Public Roads and is employed by Avalon Integrated Services Corp. of Arlington, Va.



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