IN THIS CASE STUDY YOU WILL LEARN:
- How NCDOT maintained operations and adhered to the statewide mandate to reduce DOT staff in government facilities, by executing a remote operations plan to sustain essential services
- How Statewide communication systems NC 511, NCDOT’s customer service line, and the DriveNC.gov website were updated to provide information about statewide Stay at Home orders and checkpoints
- How NCDOT is working to keep the staff healthy and safe by maintaining both remote and onsite staffing.
In January 2020, the first cases of the novel Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) hit the nation causing many uncertainties for the United States. Similar to many agencies, the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) faced a variety of challenges in managing the day to day operations, while maintaining safe practices during this pandemic. From increased teleworking – adhering to CDC guidance and practices in all offices, NCDOT administered protocols to mitigate the impact of this deadly virus. NCDOT’s Traffic Systems Operations Section (TSO) implemented the department’s practices in their Traffic Management Centers (TMCs) in order to maintain 24/7/365 support of the transportation network in North Carolina.
Prior to COVID-19, NCDOT made great strides to reinforce the network backbone and connectivity of its ITS infrastructure across the state. This was a vital component of the department’s 2018 TSMO Strategic plan, which enabled operational redundancy between TMCs such that critical services could be maintained if one or more centers could not operate. NCDOT worked to upgrade servers, migrated 1,000 ITS devices from analog to digital communication platforms, and implemented new video streaming capabilities that improved image quality and accessibility. The switch from analog to digital was not only imperative to the enhancement of the ITS network, but it was also a key milestone that made remote access to ITS devices possible. With this upgrade, the department would not have been able to implement its response and maintain core operations when COVID-19 hit. Without these capabilities, traffic operations in North Carolina and the critical, life-saving services that it provides would have been severely diminished during the pandemic.
NCDOT’s TMC Operations Program
NCDOT’s Traffic Management Program relies on four TMCs located in Raleigh, Charlotte, Greensboro, and Asheville. TMC staff actively monitor roadways throughout the state, proactively respond to congestion and traffic incidents, and employ TSMO strategies to support core operational services. These services include detection and verification of traffic incidents; coordination with first responders and DOT field personnel; delivery of realtime traveler information through Dynamic Message Signs (DMS) and other platforms such as the DriveNC.gov website and NC 511 phone system. TMCs also play an essential role in responding to emergency and major events, natural disasters, and severe adverse weather
In March 2020, North Carolina was met with the first positive COVID-19 test. This elevated actions that included stay at home orders and reduced large gatherings across the state. For the traveling public, noticeable reductions in traffic volume were observed on major interstates and corridors. However, incident severity remained at the same level due to increased speeds on these roadways. Thus, it was essential for NCDOT to maintain effective transportation management to support safety and mobility.
To maintain operations and adhere to the statewide mandate to reduce DOT staff in government facilities, NCDOT executed a remote operations plan to sustain essential services. This plan had to address technology needs, communication protocols, and be able to be sustainable because of limited information on duration of this event.
TSMO Planning, Strategies and Deployment
The escalation and spread of COVID- 19 resulted in the need to make quick decisions to support ongoing operations. With so many unknowns about the implications and longevity of the virus, the following considerations were taken.
- Reviewed current pandemic plans: NCDOT reviewed the swine flu pandemic plan and quickly determined that it could not be modified to fit the needs of COVID- 19. The lack of a remote protocol and shortened duration made it unusable.
- Defined Remote Operations: In anticipation of full remote operations for all TMC control rooms, NCDOT developed a Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP) that addressed how services would be provided with remote staff. The COOP defined the operational priorities, essential resources, and critical paths to maintaining the core services that TMCs must provide to have a meaningful impact on traffic and incident management. The plan defined a path to ensure the following services were maintained with remote operations:
- Traffic Monitoring: Laptops, VPN access, and internet hot spots were obtained to provide TMC staff with the equipment required to monitor and manage traffic.
- Stakeholder Coordination: 800 MHz radios were provided to staff to support dispatching and coordination with North Carolina’s safety service patrol units (IMAP).
- Deploying Incident Responses. Access to DMS software and DriveNC.gov was granted to ensure connectivity to response tools.
- Developed a Bug Out Checklist: In preparation for quick exit of the TMC facilities, Bug Out Checklists were developed to ensure all required activities to leave the site were documented and accounted. This bug out checklist included details on partner notification, reconfiguring phones and other systems for remote accessibility, and directions for on- going communication and oversight. These lists were provided to key stakeholders.
On March 19, 2020, Governor Cooper’s “Two- Thirds” rule went into effect, where all government facilities were to shift two- thirds of the work force to teleworking. In concurrence with this order, NCDOT shifted 30 TMC team members to remote operations. The team was equipped with laptops, 800 MHz radios, and Verizon hotspots that were used to maintain core operations. To ensure effective communication with this mixed staff, both onsite and remote team members utilized Microsoft Teams to coordinate activities and share information across the state.
Communications Planning and Execution
Communication between onsite and remote staff was crucial to the success of remote operations. In the midst of COVID- 19, the Statewide Transportation Operations Center (STOC) launched Microsoft Teams meetings to improve information sharing. All staff join a 24/7 Microsoft Teams call during their shifts to maintain team engagement.
Communication with the public was also important. For the first time, messages not specifically related to traffic, incidents, travel, or amber alerts were posted on over 250 overhead Dynamic Message Signs (DMS) as requested by Governor Cooper. NCDOT adhered to FHWA standards to communicate information related to COVID- 19. Traveler information was also communicated through NC 511, NCDOT’s customer service line, and the DriveNC.gov website. NC 511 messages were updated to provide information about statewide Stay at Home orders, while special alerts were posted on the website. Dare and Hyde Counties closed their borders to non- residents in mid- March to prevent the spread of COVID- 19. NCDOT added this information to DriveNC.gov and provided regular updates as the checkpoint statuses changed. Daily reports were provided to NCDOT leadership to keep them informed on checkpoint statuses.
Outcome, Learnings and Public Benefit
The unprecedented event of COVID- 19 forced the Department to adjust business practices and operational responses in the delivery of mission critical support to the transportation network in North Carolina. The combination of the early investments in ITS infrastructure and the quick response of remote operations led to the success of maintaining the TMCs’ operations during this pandemic.
Due to early investments in TSMO priorities, NCDOT’s ITS infrastructure was better prepared to support accessibility, integration, and connectivity of staff working remotely. NCDOT’s resilient transportation operations team has navigated the challenges of this pandemic. To date key lessons learned include:
- Importance to have flexibility in an operational COOP. NCDOT’s COOP addressed several conditions for maintaining traffic management services, up to 100% remote operations for all TMCs.
- Network connectivity is essential to operations. NCDOT’s TSMO investments are paying dividends in support of the pandemic and will be used for future events.
- Strong coordination is essential for success. The synergy amongst NCDOT’s Operations and IT has resulted in quick resolution to challenges encountered during this pandemic.
The TMC program is vital to public safety. From coordinating with first responders to delivering timely and accurate traveler information, the services provided by NCDOT are essential to the state. During North Carolina’s Stay at Home order from March 18, 2020 to May 22, 20202, the TMCs responded to 3,126 events, including 1,217 vehicle crashes. TMC operations are a core benefit for the public economically due to the reduction in congestion and improved safety. Because of how critical the TMCs are to the state, NCDOT is working to keep the staff healthy and safe by maintaining both remote and onsite staffing. This limits the number of team members working in proximity to each other. NCDOT is following approved CDC guidelines and reviewing safety practices regularly to minimize exposure to COVID- 19. Our team is committed to providing exceptional services to the traveling public.