New Pa. alert system to connect with stranded motorists
December 22, 2016 11:12 PM
Photo courtesy of Tim McNeil
Buses and trucks at a standstill on Pennsylvania Turnpike, Jan.23.
By Ed Blazina / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
When big rigs jackknifed on the westbound Pennsylvania Turnpike during a January snowstorm, more than 500 vehicles were stranded for over 24 hours with little information on when help would arrive or when they might start moving again.
The state can’t stop such emergencies from happening, Gov. Tom Wolf said Thursday, but it can do a better job of communicating with those who are stranded. Mr. Wolf and other officials announced a new system — believed to be the first in the country — that will allow officials to communicate directly with groups that are stranded for more than two hours.
The system, known as 511PAConnect, will operate similarly to the Amber alert or weather alert systems by sending a message to all cell phones in a specific area when a standstill occurs on a limited-access highway.
The system, which will be enacted by emergency management personnel in consultation with police and road officials, will encourage motorists who are stranded to register with the emergency operations center with basic information about their vehicle and passengers as well as any information they might provide about the incident.
Once registered, motorists will receive updates every 15 minutes either through texts or prerecorded audio messages about the incident that led to the stoppage until traffic starts moving again. Anyone with an emergency still should call 911 to report their situation.
The key element, emergency management director Richard D. Flinn Jr. said, will be that emergency personnel will be able to use GPS to immediately locate any vehicle that is registered.
Once the incident is over, the state will scrub all of the contact information out of its computer system.
Mr. Wolf, who ordered improvements in communications after the January incident, called the system “a new tool” that would “solve a decades-old problem” of communicating with stranded motorists. In large part, he said, it will involve sharing information the state already has collected with stranded motorists, so there will be minimal cost.
“After two hours, people will know their government is working for them,” he said.
Leslie S. Richards, secretary of the Department of Transportation, said 511PAConnect will supplement other services such as 511PA that provides traffic information and the system that allows motorists to see where snowplows have cleared roads during the winter.
The new system will plug “a key gap” in emergency response by providing “direct communication with the folks involved,” said turnpike CEO Mark Compton. He said every post-event review of an incident that he has ever been involved in centered on the need for better communication.
In addition to the communication system announced Thursday, the turnpike commission has developed an extensive playbook to guide its actions in an emergency, is storing more food and other supplies at maintenance stations, and has revised its contract with AccuWeather to get better weather information more often.
“We’re better prepared today than we have ever been” to deal with emergencies, Mr. Compton said.
Ed Blazina: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1470.
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