AUSTIN (KXAN) — New technology out of the Austin Transportation Department could help emergency vehicles respond to crashes and fires more quickly, reducing delays and longer response times.
For decades, the city used traffic signal preemptions at several locations citywide. The technology included a receiver mounted on a traffic pole, with a transmitter on emergency vehicles like ambulances or fire trucks, but weatherization and maintenance issues made for difficult upkeep.
When a crash was reported, the city could use the receiver and transmitter system to adjust traffic signals to allow an emergency vehicle faster access.
Now, the city is rolling out a new, centralized communication system where it can track an emergency vehicle’s location in relation to a crash or fire, overriding normal traffic signals to clear the right-of-way for an ambulance or fire truck. This latest technology wouldn’t require physical hardware, like transmitters or receivers.
The system is now operating at about 100 locations in Austin, out of the city’s roughly 1,000-traffic signal network.
How do traffic signal preemptions work?
The inspiration for the new, centralized communication system came from a transit signal priority program implemented for CapMetro’s bus rapid transit routes. That program linked CapMetro’s software system with the city’s signal system.
“The proverbial light bulb went off in terms of, well, all of these emergency vehicles, they’re part of an [automatic vehicle location] system in which they know the location of the vehicle,” Brian Craig, managing engineer with ATD’s arterial management division, said. “So we could do something very similar for them.”
This new software-based approach would reduce the burden of installing hardware in the field and the upkeep that comes with it. Earlier this year, ATD began expanding its transit signal priority system to connect with its emergency vehicle tracking, with the department now in its pilot testing stage.
The traffic signal system is broken down into different zones. Once an emergency vehicle enters a zone, system operators can geotrack how close the response vehicle is to a potential emergency, adjusting the signals so that they get a green light and can safely navigate to the crash or fire.
“A vehicle driving down Lamar may get to 12th Street, but it may actually be putting in a call at 24th Street to make sure that the signal has enough time to get the green on Lamar before the vehicle gets there,” Craig said.
National studies conducted by the Federal Highway Administration have found that a well-working emergency vehicle preemption system can reduce response times between 14% to 50%.
What’s the timeline for more traffic signal preemptions to go online?
Since it began deploying the new technology last month, ATD is looking into potential tweaks to the system to see if zones needed to be adjusted to better serve response vehicles.
“There’s no point in giving a green light to the fire truck if they’re still getting [to the crash site] while there’s a queue,” Craig said. “Those situations, we would want to extend, extend the zone so we bring the green light on earlier to move vehicles prior to the fire truck getting there.”
Craig said ATD will be gathering data from its currently activated zones over the next three months to track response times and to ensure the traffic signal is receiving the call placed for emergency vehicles to access the site. He estimates the system will be working citywide within the next 15 months.
“If we’re able to get a fire [truck] or an EMS [ambulance] to a crash scene or somebody’s house to help, then I mean, I think that’s potentially life-altering for somebody,” he said.