The largest potential disaster that Harris County, Texas, confronts is flooding. So 15 years ago, when federal dollars initially were being allocated to emergency management, Harris County made sure those dollars went to planning and coordination, said Mark Sloan, EM coordinator for the county’s Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Management . The initial emergency management partnership back then was between emergency management and flood control. They installed numerous gauges to monitor the creeks, bayous and streams, and then expanded the partnership to include transportation. “Because that’s the most critical aspect of what happens in a tropical storm or a hurricane — the evacuation process,” Sloan said. “So it made perfect sense to merge the two and partner.”
What began back then as a three-man operation is now a 22-person operation, he said. And all monitoring and coordinating of waterways and traffic happens in one location — the Greater Houston Transportation and Emergency Management Center, known as Houston TranStar.
Houston TranStar is composed of three primary components as far as monitoring, coordinating and responding are concerned: the command room, the TranStar Center and the Emergency Operations Center.
In the TranStar Center, large screens at the room’s front display images from traffic cameras that run from the coast to Dallas to San Antonio to Austin, so all roadways can be monitored — though the center’s primary focus is the metro Houston area, Sloan said. The cameras are digital, spaced at about one mile apart and have zoom capabilities, and sensors in the roadways transmit traffic speeds, which also are monitored. The TranStar Center is a 24/7 operation, and the entire center is in the process of being redesigned and updated with new technology. “The old monitors we had generated a lot of temperature and heat, and took up a lot of space,” Sloan said. “So we’re actually going to be able to double the capacity of the personnel who sit on the floor.” During an evacuation, the screens are split into fours, and the center monitors all evacuation routes and makes timely decisions. “We know exactly what’s happening — when, where, on what roadways — when it comes to accidents and other issues,” Sloan said.
Caption: In the Houston TranStar Center, large screens display traffic camera images from throughout the state, so all roadways can be monitored.
Jessica Mulholland served as the Web editor of Government Technology magazine from October 2012 through September 2017. She worked for the Government Technology editorial team for nearly 10 years.