Friday, December 2, 2022

City prepared for Ian with 200 intersections equipped for generator back-up

Over 200 intersections in the tri-county region are equipped to prevent stoplights from going down during storm events, thanks to generators. (Courtesy WPD)

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — Ahead of tropical storm conditions approaching the Cape Fear this weekend, the city is more prepared for traffic signal outages — and so are other area adjacent towns, due to an initiative first pursued by the Wilmington Police Department last spring.

Cumulatively, 212 intersections in the tri-county region will be equipped to handle generator back-up. City of Wilmington crews have been working over the last several weeks to adapt 157 intersections to prevent failures during hurricanes, other storms and emergency events, in effect making the roads safer for travelers and officers.

READ MORE: WPD seeks $482K grant to fund backup power for intersection outages

WPD received $482,000 in grant funding in June to adapt stop lights in the city to run on generator power. The city already had 43 traffic signals wired for back-up, and with the grant money, WPD has been able to increase that number to 200. 

It was covered by the N.C. Emergency Management Transportation Infrastructure Resilience Grant. WPD purchased 35 generators — for a total inventory now of 50 — traffic cones, and a truck to store the suitcase-sized generators.

While the city did not have exact statistics on how often intersection lights go down, WPD Chief Donny Williams said chances for accidents are much greater when it does happen.

“After a storm, people are in chaos,” Williams said. “We say to stay in your house but from my experience, most don’t. And mechanical lights do it a lot better than me standing there trying to make judgment calls.”

WPD Chief Donny Williams explains on a prop device built at the department how to utilize the pre-wired traffic lights for generator back-up power. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti)

Typically, a downed intersection requires three officers on site, Williams said. Depending on the weather they can be on duty outside for only a limited amount of  time, meaning another person is needed to take over the shift. Williams said that could total more than six officers stationed at one intersection, taking them away from potentially other important calls.

With the generators in operation, if a light goes down, only one officer will be needed to patrol from his or her vehicle, covering multiple intersections to ensure operations run smoothly. The generators will last six to eight hours before needing to be refueled.

Officers still need to transport a mobile generator to the scene, but Williams said once it arrives, the process is easy: Plug it into the pre-wired adapter on the pole and flip a switch.

The department tested its patrol vehicles, 85% of which are equipped with inverters as well, able to provide back-up power should a generator fail. 

The idea to launch a comprehensive initiative began over two decades ago when Williams was a rookie officer. In 1996, when hurricanes Bertha and Fran hit the region, he said he spent two weeks directing traffic in the heavy rainfall, water filling his boots.

“I was by myself for five hours, couldn’t go to the bathroom,” he explained. “It was an experience that really broke my spirits as a young officer.”

Williams explained as he moved through the ranks, he “would not let it go.” He said he knew there had to be a more efficient tactic.

“I don’t want to see our officers go through what I had to go through,” he added.

Williams began collaborating with the city traffic and engineering department to convert the intersection of 17th Street and Independence Boulevard to be the first capable of running off generator power in 2014. 

In fiscal year 2021, WPD identified funds in its budget to wire a few of the city’s largest intersections: Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway and Kerr, Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway and College, Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway, as well as Market, Market and Eastwood and Eastwood and Military Cutoff.

Without utilizing officers, it conserves resources.

“It’s more practical than having officers standing out there and also putting them in jeopardy of being struck by a vehicle,” Williams said. 

The department hasn’t done a complete cost-benefit analysis, but Williams is clear you can’t put a value on saving a life.

In recent months, the police chief has reached out to other local law enforcement agencies about the project, especially in beach towns that may feel the brunt force of hurricanes and tropical storms.

The Town of Surf City installed generator hookups this week on its two major intersections: Highway 17 and NC 210 East and 210 and Highway 50.

“The Surf City Police Department is committed to providing safe roadways for our citizens and a safe work environment for our employees, making this project well worth the expense,” Chief Phil Voorhees said.

It cost the Pender County beach town $2,000. During Hurricane Isais, when the traffic light at Highway 17 and 210 went down — an area that sees more than 3,000 vehicles a day — three officers were stationed to direct traffic for hours. With the generator backup, only one will be needed to assess fuel levels periodically, Voohrees explained.

“The project will pay for itself after the next major outage or storm,” he said. “The public will also be better served as they will see minimal delays and a level of safety they are accustomed to when the traffic control devices operate normally.”

Also in Pender County, the Town of Burgaw is working to equip three of its major intersections: N.C. Highway 53 and U.S. Highway 117; Wilmington and Walker streets; and the signal at N.C. Highway 53 at Walmart. The town has not done a cost estimate yet.

The Town of Wrightsville Beach is in the process of having its two signal-controlled intersections adapted for generator power — at N. Lumina and E. Salisbury and at Waynick and Causeway. Southport has just begun to research costs associated with powering five of its intersections with generator backup.

“The greatest benefit with us being a smaller department is keeping officers available for 911 calls and patrol versus being tied down on intersections directing traffic,” Southport Chief Todd Coring said. 


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