PennDOT Traffic Management Centers are a 24/7 service the department provides to monitor the health of Pennsylvania's roads for crashes, disabled vehicles, and emergency scenarios that could impact the overall safety and mobility of motorists.
As PennDOT moved to remote operations due to COVID-19, our Traffic Management Centers (TMCs) transitioned from highly technical facilities to home-based operations with minimal disruption to service. While best practices and lessons learned continue to be captured, PennDOT anticipates it is becoming a national leader for remote TMC operations. Various challenges have been presented and overcome in these critical operations which monitor traffic conditions and incidents, coordinate with emergency responders, among other critical functions. Teamwork from staff across the state has made operational transitions to remote operations possible thanks to extensive coordination and collaboration between IT, district and central office staffs, and the robust set of traffic management tools we have available.
These changes began on March 13 when restrictions in Montgomery County began and the Statewide Traffic Management Center (STMC) had to take over operations for the Philadelphia-based District 6 Regional Traffic Management Center (RTMC). Prior to this, the STMC had only taken over operations for a regional center for short periods of time. It was clear that this was a different scenario and the STMC would need to perform 24/7 operations the most congested part of the state with no end in sight. A few days later, the scope of the pandemic started to take shape and we soon learned that the entire state would go into a mitigation state. This meant a plan for full remote 24/7 TMC operations would be needed. Staff from all TMCs across the state immediately said they'd do whatever was needed. In some cases, that meant transitioning a business hours TMC to 24/7 operations with limited staff.
The first challenge was access to the necessary equipment. This included things like laptops, headsets, monitors, and internet hot spots. TMCs in District 1, 2, 4 and 5 coordinated with their IT staff on equipment needs, while maintenance staff coordinated with Central Office IT to configure and distribute 52 remote TMC setups for staff around the state. Guidance was developed for workstation setup, file and communication tool usage, and other traffic operations tools. Central Office and District Traffic Operations managers assisted TMC personnel with setting up equipment and troubleshooting any issues.
Check-in meetings continue to be held every few days with the Traffic Management Centers and very few issues have been identified. There have been many success stories noted to date including TMCs monitoring districts typically in other regions, amazing IT support and 24/7 service, and the use of Skype meeting to ensure operators have good communication with their coworkers. Many of these best practices are expected to continue once we return to normal operations.
This story of our TMC operations is just one of many of the success stories being documented during this very challenging time. It's a great example of the dedication of PennDOT staff and our ability to quickly adapt to challenging circumstances
District 1 Reports on Their Transition to New Reality
By: Jill Harry
It was nearing the end of the season for the District 1 Traffic Management Center (TMC) employees when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Pennsylvania. Instead of winding down the seasonal crew, they geared up to help the district maintenance facilities transition to telework.
When TMC manager Ed Orzehowski arrived at work on March 16, he was tasked with one mission – get the TMC ready to work remotely. "Normally our contingency plan is to shift duties to the Regional TMC in Pittsburgh," Orzehowski said. "It was certainly never thought about what we would do if the whole state had to leave the office on nearly the same timeline."
For District 1, that meant coordinating with IT employee Conrad Nason to obtain needed computers and accessories, determining how phones could to forwarded among the operators, assessing which functions could be handled remotely, and calling in employees for training and equipment pickup on short notice.
"It was pretty incredible what they were able to do in just one day," said Michele Morningstar, maintenance services engineer. By the time the office was closed that evening, a plan was in place and the TMC staff was fully on board to run things in shifts from their homes. Each was assigned a laptop, headset and mouse. One operator would work each eight-hour shift instead of the traditional two or three.
"The operators were very flexible and accommodating," Orzehowski said.
In the end, it was determined operators would be able to change the interstate message boards, input RCRS information into the state system, watch for incidents on the TrafficAlerts.com and 511PA.com, relay emergency information as needed, and answer the phones for all six counties in the district.
The maneuver not only kept the District TMC open until its original seasonal closure on April 3, but it also helped relieve some of the pressure on the counties that were trying to get their own contingency plans in place. Though some of the operators were previously unfamiliar with answering calls for the county facilities, all were willing to learn the process as needed.
"We were able to lift a burden off the counties while at the same time not passing that burden on to the regional or state TMCs at a time when they were scrambling as well," Morningstar said.
Beyond the operators’ helpful attitudes, the pair were quick to point to other factors that made the transition to TMC remote work more achievable - the winter weather season winding down, the recent transition to a Skype phone system, and a decrease in overall traffic as people throughout the district adhered to Governor Wolf’s stay-at-home recommendation.
“From March 4 to April 1, the District 1 core roadway network saw an 11 percent reduction in truck traffic, a 53 percent reduction in passenger vehicle traffic and a 32 percent overall reduction in traffic,” Orzehowski said.
The Skype system made it possible for a phone group to be created, which shortened the process of forwarding calls among the group, including eliminating cumbersome daily steps.
By the time the operators had concluded their seasonal employment, the counties had plans in place to resume accepting calls to their general phone numbers, and the regional TMC in Pittsburgh was prepared to take traffic management tasks for District 1.
In a message to the TMC operators on their last day, Michele acknowledged the important role they played in helping District 1 transition to remote working. "Every year our TMC gets better and supports our counties when they need us most," she said. "And that is because of you and your dedication. It is an honor to work with all of you and you should be proud of the service you provide to your coworkers and the traveling public."