Incident Gridlock - Overwhelming a City

Without warning the City of Boston was thrown into chaos on 15 April 2013. The terrorist bombings that occurred near the finish line of the Boston Marathon killed three people, injured dozens more, and gridlocked an already congested city. Because both manmade and natural disasters can happen anywhere at any time without warning, the transportation infrastructure is critical to emergency response. Regardless of whether transportation facilities are directly affected by the incident, transportation is a vital link needed to bring responders to the scene, transport the victims to medical facilities, and move the public away from potential harm.

Information, resources, as well as understood and effective procedures that are rehearsed with other emergency responders are needed in order to achieve an efficient response across the transportation network. In and around large metropolitan areas or other locations where there are a lot of commuters, most people are already familiar with the effects of regular daily traffic congestion. What may not be realized is the effect that heavy congestion can have on the emergency response agencies. Such gridlock has a tremendous impact on the commuters’ personal, business, and social lives, but has as much if not more of an effect on the ability of responders to navigate to the scene of an unexpected incident or even a planned event.

Bombings, Hurricanes & Other Past Disasters

When an incident occurs and a request for an emergency response is made, emergency vehicles will often take longer to reach their destination due to the amount of congestion that builds following an incident. The gridlock that ensues is part of a recipe that causes a delay in treatment or mitigation of the incident as well as additional problems with traffic movement. The Boston bombings caused a gridlock of epic proportions because, in addition to the incident itself, all modes of transportation into and out of the city were virtually shut down for nearly a day.

In light of the attacks of 9/11 and natural disasters such as Hurricanes Floyd (1999), Katrina (2005), and Rita (2005), the Federal Highway Administration conducted a study in 2007 to address several transportation issues that had emerged. The results showed that, after an incident occurs, there is:

  • A weakness in the infrastructure’s ability to handle the movement of people;
  • Anything suspicious occurring near a transportation facility will cause the facility to either close or at least restrict access; and
  • As found during the 2002 “D.C. Sniper” attacks that lasted more than 20 days – killing 10 people and injuring three more – traffic congestion increased as law enforcement investigations were conducted at entrance and exit ramps to major arteries.

Another issue that had surfaced was that few government agencies at the local, state, and federal levels integrate transportation into their emergency management plans. For example, according to the 2007 study:

  • Less then 50 percent of all government agencies include details on media coordination, traveler information, and infrastructure protection;
  • Only 10 percent address transportation coordination with local, state, and federal level emergency operations centers; and
  • Only 66 percent of state and 33 percent of local plans have Department of Transportation contacts.

Another important aspect that has not been thoroughly addressed is that personnel who respond from the transportation sector may not be familiar with local and state emergency management procedures. Some have not been trained to work within the Incident Command System nor are they familiar with the National Incident Management System. There are states and local jurisdictions that have made great strides in filling this information gap, but much is still needed – in particular, preparing the transportation sector with both the equipment and training to deal with terrorist threats.

Planning & Technology Initiatives

The Federal Highway Administration is currently working with transportation agencies nationwide – along with their many partners – to improve coordination in the planning and technology processes. By integrating and improving regional and transportation operational plans to coordinate with current emergency operations and response plans, these plans will reflect not only how the transportation system will work, but how it will work during emergencies. However, it is important that transportation agencies and response organizations continue to build more effective working relationships – including multiagency, multimodal exercises that are conducted as tabletops and full functional exercises to build relationships and test the plans’ functionality.

In addition to planning initiatives, the transportation sector has many advanced technological tools that could be used to assist emergency responders in expediting evacuations – from rerouting traffic to full-scale lane reversals. Although many transportation agencies have the tools already in place, they have not yet tested and integrated them with emergency response organizations. A common understanding of the Incident Command System and its use during incidents would ensure better management of an incident and efficient deployment of transportation assets. Fortunately, some of this training has already begun and is now becoming an integral part of the required training.

In summary, normal everyday traffic can cause disruption and confusion, but even more so during and immediately following a disaster incident. The duration of the disruption and the effectiveness of the emergency responders and transportation system, though, will be determined by the plans in place, the training conducted prior to the incident, and the level of familiarization with designated roles and responsibilities. It is difficult to prepare for every eventuality, but if risks and hazards – those with the greatest likelihood and with the highest potential impact on operations – have been identified, emergency plans put in place, and effects minimized with mitigation procedures, personnel will be ready to respond with confidence. Through repetition of exercises, cross-discipline training, and application of standard operating procedures, cities will be better prepared to manage the gridlock that often follows both planned events and unplanned incidents.

Glen Rudner
Glen Rudner

Glen Rudner retired in 2022 as a manager of environmental operations for the Norfolk Southern (NS) Railway with environmental compliance and operations responsibilities in Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Previously, he was the hazardous materials compliance officer for NS’s Alabama Division (covering Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and southwestern Tennessee). Prior to NS, he served as one of the general managers at the Security and Emergency Response Training Center in Pueblo, Colorado. He worked as a private consultant and retired as a hazardous materials response officer for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. He has nearly 42 years of experience in public safety. He spent 12 years as a career firefighter/hazardous materials specialist for the City of Alexandria Fire Department, as well as a former volunteer firefighter, emergency medical technician, and officer. As a subcontractor, he served as a consultant and assisted in developing training programs for local, state, and federal agencies. He serves as secretary for the National Fire Protection Association Technical Committee on Hazardous Materials Response. He is a member of the International Association of Fire Chiefs Hazardous Materials Committee, a member of the American Society of Testing and Materials, and a former co-chairman of the Ethanol Emergency Response Coalition. He served as a member of the FEMA NAC RESPONSE Subcommittee.



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