Since August 2006, first responders in Northern Virginia have been participating in an innovative pilot program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) that uses camera phones to transmit images from incident scenes to other responders and to regional tow companies.  The University of Maryland’s Capital Wireless Information Net (CapWIN) program is implementing the pilot program to assess the value of using field images to improve the effectiveness and timeliness of responses to significant transportation incidents. As part of the program, approximately two dozen transportation field personnel have been using commercial cell phones equipped with cameras to capture both images and “voice tags” (audio descriptions of the accident scene) – which are then transmitted to participants in the pilot program.  

Tow companies use the field images to make better-informed decisions about the type of equipment to dispatch to clear an accident scene, and regional transportation officials use the images to better manage incidents in terms of detours, updates to message signs, and coordination with other jurisdictions. Although traffic cameras have long been permanent fixtures along the Interstate 95 corridor between Washington, D.C., and Richmond, Virginia, the images available from those cameras often does not provide enough visual detail to determine the specific nature of a given accident scene when (and if) the incident scene is in the camera’s field of view. Moreover, because many traffic cameras are positioned at a fixed angle and do not possess pan, tilt, and zoom capabilities, their value may be limited to providing information about the impact of specific incidents on overall traffic flow, the extent of delays, rubbernecking, and similar problems. Proven Value – And Much More to Come Initial feedback from participants in the DOT camera phone pilot has been positive and indicates that the field images transmitted could be of significant value in supporting regional incident awareness and coordination.  The addition of voice-tag recordings to the pictures also has helped to confirm the specifics of a given incident – e.g., lane-closure information and other details that are not always provided or can easily be misinterpreted through standard radio communications. Camera phone images also can be automatically linked to the associated transportation center incident via the CapWIN incident management system, making it much easier for first responders to share multi-media information – including pictures as well as audio and video clips – with other first responders across a wider geographical area.  For example, incidents covered by the Northern Virginia Smart Traffic Center automatically generate incident reports in the CapWIN system that are made instantly accessible to all CapWIN field and center-based users. In addition, a first responder in the field can use his or her camera phone to take a photo of the incident scene and transmit a standard multimedia text message to the CapWIN system, which will automatically add the image to the incident’s record for all to see. The City of New York recently announced a plan to integrate camera phone images provided by private citizens directly into the city’s own 911 dispatch centers to increase the level of situational awareness available to responding agencies.  Although the value of these images to aid in emergency response remains to be proven, the near ubiquitous availability of camera phones possessed by the general public provides a significant untapped resource to provide additional visual context to field incidents. Because many first responders are not equipped with camera phones themselves, New York’s solution would use the resources of the public to fill this gap.  

Although questions remain about the validity and ultimate legal admissibility of such images to aid in criminal investigations, the New York City solution will almost certainly result in emergency responders having a better visual image of an incident scene. In the Washington, D.C., area, CapWIN’s field-imaging technology has been used not only by the transportation community but also by public-safety personnel to aid in criminal “be on the lookout” searches and other law-enforcement activities. The images transmitted have included mug shots, photos of missing persons, commercial-vehicle placard information, and photos of stolen merchandise. In addition to supporting law-enforcement activities, field images also have been used to support a number of disaster-response efforts.  When Tropical Storm Ernesto crossed over Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia, for example, first responders captured images of water damage and the flooding caused by the storm that were made instantly available to all participating agencies.  The Impartial Observer Visual images also can provide an “unbiased” assessment of a given incident scene.  For example, following Katrina’s landfall in New Orleans, initial assessments of the status of the city’s levees were frequently contradictory and in some instances almost wholly dependent upon the information available to, and/or the opinion of, the individual providing the assessment. In fact, former FEMA Director Michael Brown testified that, shortly after the storm, he received a report from one of his staff members in New Orleans that there was a levee breach in progress.  Brown dismissed the report, however, allegedly because the staff person who provided it was “prone to exuberance.” It seems almost certain that one or more photographs of the suspected levee breach would have provided an unambiguous assessment of the situation. As it happened, though, sixteen hours passed before the levee breach was officially confirmed by FEMA, and that delay severely affected the agency’s ability to effectively plan for the flooding that already was taking place. On a day-to-day basis, images also can provide clarity to a wide range of other situations. One recent example occurred in the Washington, D.C., area when the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, a critical link in the I-95 corridor between Richmond and Baltimore, was shut down because a “suspicious device” was found on a barge sitting at the base of the bridge. All traffic in the vicinity was stopped, or diverted elsewhere, for nearly an hour while the Metropolitan Police’s Harbor Patrol and other local law-enforcement agencies responded to the scene. One of the respondersentified the device as a weather balloon monitoring station and, after contacting the National Weather Service to confirm the location of the device, local officials reopened the bridge to traffic. It seems likely that the situation would have been resolved much more quickly if the initial report by the first responder had been accompanied by an image from a cell phone that could be made instantly available to hundreds of other first responders both in the field and at operation centers – one or more of whom could have correctlyentified the device from the photo. With the establishment of regional “fusion” centers that include integration of law-enforcement and other first-responder agencies with public safety, transportation, and even weather personnel, resolution of the same incident might in fact have been accomplished almost instantly, saving not only the valuable time of first responders (and thousands of commuters) but also the considerable expense incurred by numerous responding agencies making their way through traffic, and/or by boat, to the incident scene. Under the sponsorship of regional public safety and transportation agencies, the CapWIN program continues to assess new technologies that could be used not only to support incident response but also to improve field-level situational awareness both among center-based users and at the command level.  Recently, for example, live video streaming from the field has been demonstrated using commercial wireless data services. This capability will be further explored and tested in future versions of the CapWIN system.  In the meantime, the availability and use of field images using cell phones, PDAs, and digital cameras will undoubtedly continue to increase among first responders. However, day-to-day integration and the full exploitation of these and other advanced technologies probably will occur only through, and after, the development and promulgation of standard operating procedures describing, or perhaps mandating, their use in the field. A formal evaluation of the DOT Camera Phone pilot program is expected to be released sometime this summer.

Rodrigo (Roddy) Moscoso

Rodrigo (Roddy) Moscoso is the executive director of the Capital Wireless Information Net (CapWIN) Program at the University of Maryland, which provides software and mission-critical data access services to first responders in and across dozens of jurisdictions, disciplines, and levels of government. Formerly with IBM Business Consulting Services, he has more than 20 years of experience supporting large-scale implementation projects for information technology, and extensive experience in several related fields such as change management, business process reengineering, human resources, and communications.

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