WILMINGTON — After several years of planning, emergency service personnel may finally get the ability to breeze through an intersection this summer.
Well, maybe not breeze, but at least alter traffic signals through preemptive software.
In the meantime, firetrucks and ambulances are the mercy of traffic lights, just like everyone else.
Traffic signal preemption
Outfitting all of Wilmington’s traffic signals with geographic information system (GIS) preemption technology has been a topic of discussion for at least six or seven years, Wilmington Fire Department Assistant Chief Frank Blackley said.
Back then, funding wasn’t available, according to Blackley. And funding is still a hurdle, according to several stakeholders involved in the project.
The technology is simple. As opposed to infrared systems, GIS does not require four separate receivers to pick up on a signal from each traffic direction. A transponder is placed on each unit, and when the lights and sirens of an emergency vehicle are on, the intersection’s receiver is triggered.
Natosha Vincent, a Wilmington Fire Department (WFD) spokesperson and firefighter, knows what it’s like to be stuck in gridlocked traffic on the way to an emergency. After business hours, on South College Road for example, Vincent said there have been times trucks have to wait it out with the rest of traffic.
“Turn the lights off. Turn the sirens off,” she said. “You’re not going anywhere.”
When this happens, the next-in-line unit is pinged. Even if the second truck is farther away, because of traffic, it might arrive at the scene faster.
Though traffic signal preemption software won’t fix regional traffic congestion, it would help emergency services, Rick O’Donnell said. O’Donnell, who serves as New Hanover Regional Medical Center (NHRMC) Emergency Medical Services (EMS) director, said the technology is designed to keep the flow of traffic moving. Congestion, with no control over traffic lights, can lead to an ambulance with no place to move.
“That’s the typical 5 o’ clock scenario,” O’Donnell said. “Traffic preemption will really help with that — because now all of a sudden, not everyone is stuck waiting at the light in front of Trader Joes. Now, we’ve got the green light, everyone else is red.”
Both NHRMC and WFD have engaged in serious talks to get traffic signal premption for their respective units. And leaders of both groups are hopeful the technology will go online this summer.
NHRMC’s average response time in 2018, from the time EMS is notified to the time of arrival, was six minutes and four seconds last year. WFD measures its response time a bit differently, accounting for the 90th percentile, a higher bar to meet, according to WFD deputy chief Steve Mason. At the 90th percentile, between 2013 and 2017, WFD’s notification to arrival time totals six minutes and 41 seconds. But if this was averaged, Mason said it’d be much lower.
“We have control over these two pieces: reaction and travel,” Mason said.
Reaction, or “turnout time,” is how fast firefighters can get out the door after being notified by New Hanover County’s 911 dispatch center.”When the tones go off, that’s how fast it takes our folks to hear the call, acknowledge it, get on the truck and roll,” he said.
WFD’s benchmark is one minute and thirty seconds to get on the road. “We’re all over that benchmark,” Mason said. But for travel time, WFD has less control.
This figure includes variables outside trained experts’ reach — like traffic. The same rule applies to NHRMC. Both utilize GIS modeling to overcome congestion, including internal shifting of units that’s been likened to a game of chess. Recently, NHRMC began employing artificial intelligence as a tool to gain a greater edge over travel time.
Overcoming traffic congestion, though it can provide challenges, is just part of the job, O’Donnell said.
“Part of the challenges we have here are not unique to Wilmington,” he said.”It’s part of running an emergency system in an urban area.”
Blackley, WFD’s assistant chief, is credited with bringing traffic signal preemption to the city’s attention.
He applied for a Surface Transportation Block Grant through Wilmington Metropolitan Planning Office (WMPO) in 2017. In May 2017, Wilmington’s City Council approved appropriating $633,378 to cover the project, that includes a $126,676 match. North Carolina Department of Transportation will reimburse the rest. The grant would cover installing transponders on at least 27 intersections and receiving equipment on each of WFD’s vehicles.
Because the grant is federal, Blackley said strings are attached, which slows things down. But federal requirements aren’t the project’s only roadblock. WAVE Transit’s Multimodal Center, planned since 2000, came in nearly double over the city’s budget last year. At over $4 million, this ate up funding that would have gone to WFD for its traffic signal preemption technology, according to Blackley.
“I would like to think — which is frightening in itself — maybe by the end of the summer we’ll be online with it,” he said.
Inquiries about funding for the project to the City of Wilmington spokesperson were re-directed back to Blackley. When asked to confirm information about the status of WFD’s grant, Mike Kozlosky, WMPO’s director, provided the following statement in an email:
“The funding for phase one is committed. The City of Wilmington is working through the design process. Once 100 percent plans and specs are approved as well as ROW certification the funds will be released for construction and the City can bid the project. The WMPO is currently awaiting completed plans and specifications.”
Next in line, NHRMC
NHRMC also wants to outfit its units with traffic preemption software. With a planned, second Surface Transportation Block Grant, NHRMC would also help expand to double the planned system WFD’s 2017 plans would cover, Blackley said.
“There was really no more money to apply for the grant this year,” he said.
Since NHRMC is not a unit of local government (it’s a public non-profit with no public funding) it cannot apply for the federal grant. Instead, WFD plans to apply for the grant on NHRMC’s behalf and the hospital would provide its match to the city.
According to Julian March, NHRMC spokesperson, the hospital has not yet determined the grant amount. Though it’s been placed in NHRMC’s 2019 budget forecast, O’Donnell said, the grant application process hasn’t opened yet, according to March. Once NHRMC learns how much funding is available, March said both the hospital and WFD will decide on how much to request.
WMPO plans to host a call for projects this spring, Kozlosky said. With a new application form and added source materials, Kozlosky said WMPO is working to revise the current approval process, pending Board approval.
At this time, area law enforcement agencies have not initiated serious steps to connect to the planned system. It would be simple to get physically added on. However, getting in line for funding the same way NHRMC and WFD have, could prove to be a timely process. It would require a multi-agency discussion, Kozlosky said.
Regardless of timing, WFD’s deputy chief Mason said the City doesn’t get enough credit.
“We can always find something to grumble about but the truth of the matter is the city has been very, very good to public safety,” Mason said.
In December, WFD welcomed a new, $1.2 million truck, the departments largest vehicle. It replaced a 21-year-old truck and came in $161,000 under budget. Two $800,000 engines are being built, Mason said, and the department got new air packs and radios last year as well.
“We’re talking about the best fire engines you can buy,” he said. As a firefighter herself, the financial support translates to a positive sense of moral, Vincent, WFD’s spokesperson said.
“For the equipment, for the apparatus, for the gear, for the training, I mean, that gives you confidence — of walking into a burning building and doing your job and not worrying,” Vincent said.
Update: This article has been updated to correct a caption on the lead image, which originally stated district lines are drawn to increase response time. Lines are drawn to decrease response time.
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