Washington, D.C., Uses Regional Transportation Information System to Combine Data for Emergency, Traffic Response

East Coast emergency, transportation responders get 'big picture view' of weather, traffic information.

by / February 19, 2010
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The National Capitol Region has a population of about 5 million and what can seem like as many law enforcement and related agencies. The Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia area was recently blanketed when hit by the worst snow storm in recent years. There were thousands of car accidents, closed roads, closed schools and even closed federal offices during the height of the chaos.

But for the roughly 120 agencies that respond to transportation concerns and emergencies, it was a controlled chaos, thanks to better communication.

"None of these agencies can talk to each other unless they pick up a phone," said Michael Pack, University of Maryland's Center for Advanced Transportation Technology (CATT) director. "So what our system does is acts as a translator between the agencies to be rapidly shared with everyone in the region."

The system is the Regional Integrated Transportation Information System (RITIS) and gives hundreds of officials at command centers and in the field a consolidated, real-time stream of traffic, accident and weather information from different sources, all displayed on a single Web page. First responders can also have two-way access to the information by using CapWIN -- the Capital Wireless Information Net -- a regional coalition of public safety and transportation agencies across Maryland, Virginia, the District of Columbia and the federal government. Both technologies were developed and are operated by the University of Maryland's CATT.

While the technology isn't new -- agencies in the area use it every day -- more hopped on board during the big storm.

"It really helps to give the picture overview, which is what a lot of managers want," Pack said. "The idea came out of the need to share information so you can respond and coordinate better."

The RITIS got its first widespread trial run during last year's presidential inauguration and is currently available to those in the emergency operations, safety and transportation fields. But Pack hopes to eventually make the service available to the public as well as integrate snow plow information -- which isn't available.

Pack is hoping the ease of communication will lead to fewer jurisdiction disagreements and provide to-the-minute traffic information.

The system monitors traffic conditions throughout the region via weather and traffic sensors embedded in the pavement, a University of Maryland press release states. "We monitor commercial vehicles outfitted with GPS to get a sense of travel times up and down the East Coast from New Jersey to South Carolina," the release states. "We monitor accidents on the road and display them via sophisticated graphics, including detailed information about who is responding, what is being done to fix the situation and the effects on traffic."

Not only does RITIS help public officials during the height of emergency situations, it could prove invaluable when the storm blows over, as every piece of information collected is archived indefinitely, Pack said. "And we've got tools that allow the public officials and emergency operators to run reports, so they can see what they did and calculate the impact they had on the transportation system as a whole.

"The data archive is almost as important as the real-time sharing of information."

For more information, visit the Web site.



Karen Wilkinson

Karen is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.