Cars stuck in snow (ShutterStock image)

Trapped drivers opt-in for emergency alerts

In January 2016, a snowstorm left about 500 motorists stranded for more than 24 hours on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. As authorities struggled to get roads cleared and supplies to the snowbound vehicles, they realized the state needed better emergency response communications and procedures, according to an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

The 511PAConnect system allows the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency to send Amber alert-style push messages, or wireless emergency alerts (WEA), to cell phones of all trapped motorists in an area where there is stopped or backed up traffic.

Besides providing information to the geo-targeted motorists’ phones, the messages include instructions on how to sign up to receive additional information about the backup by text or phone call.

When travelers register for more information, they can provide information like type of vehicle, number of occupants and even share their location via cell phone, so authorities can get a better picture of the backup and better prepare responses -- whether that be more food and water to accommodate stranded tour buses or heavy-duty tow trucks to move jackknifed 18-wheelers.  Information from motorists is sent to the turnpike’s communication center where officials analyze, map and relay the data to responders. The phone numbers are erased after the incident, and motorists are kept anonymous.

In January alone, the state used the system three times. On Jan. 21, an accident backed up morning traffic on the turnpike, and more than 20 motorists opted for 511PAConnect updates. They used the system to communicate the type of car they were driving and the number of passengers, the Post-Gazette reported. 

On Jan. 23, winter weather caused turnpike backups in two areas lasting more than four hours. About 200 motorists responded to the emergency alert, and the turnpike sent nine road and safety updates in just 90 minutes.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike, Department of Transportation, Emergency Management Agency and state police are working together to make sure proper resources are available along the turnpike.

Depending on the emergency, knowing the number of people stranded and type of vehicles involved allows responders to better prepare for an extended delay.

A similar commercial service, Smart911, also helps responders collect more information from people – but before they become involved in emergencies. It lets users create an online safety profile that includes any information on themselves, their families or households that they would want 911 response teams to have in an emergency. Any public-safety answering point with the Smart911 software will be able to see this information when a registered user calls.

Unlike 511PAConnect, which relies on WEA messages, Smart911 is an app and participants’ data is stored data is stored within the vendor’s national public safety infrastructure.  

About the Author

Amanda Ziadeh is a former reporter/producer for GCN.

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