Big brother is watching ... and sending help to motorists
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Big brother is watching ... and sending help to motorists

News Daily | January 8, 2005

Walking into the Transportation Management Center (TMC) is eerily akin to stepping into the situation room in any modern war movie.

A gigantic plasma screen dominates a two-story semi-dark "operations center," with an image of the metro roadways... switching in real time from green to yellow or red, depending on driving conditions.

Three live video feeds on screens - provided by 474 moveable cameras that can pan, tilt and zoom remotely - anchor the mega-map, giving visual proof of the changing colors on the giant screen above.

Bordering the whole thing are color-coded synopses of ongoing traffic events and their status.

The whole thing is called the X-wall. It's 18 feet high by 24 feet wide and it's the primary source of light in the cavernous semi-dark, two-story "operations center." The colored glow creates an atmosphere of reverence, seriousness and purpose, where people talk in hushed tones and walk slowly.

Overhead, an Emergency Command Center sticks out over the floor from above. Behind the glass wall allowing the room's occupants to literally oversee the entire operations center is a conference table with a phone outlet in front of every seat for all of the mission-critical DOT department heads in force during emergencies. Mobile plasma screens that can be jacked-in to any camera stand dark in the corner.

On the operations center floor below, DOT employees talk quietly into headsets, dealing with individual incidents: wrecks, lane closures, HERO truck emergencies, stranded motorists... even the occasional stray piece of furniture that flies off the back of a truck.

Cameras and computer software aren't the only monitors sending reports back to the TMC. There are a dozen Highway Emergency Response Operator (HERO) trucks patrolling the metro area interstates during commute hours, and they come as far south as the Eagle's Landing/Hudson Bridge Road exit on I-75. The HEROs handle all types of roadway emergencies, and each of the 56 trucks in the DOT's HERO fleet is capable of righting an overturned 18-wheeler.

Despite whatever chaos may be transpiring on the big screens -- and out on metro Atlanta's interstates and state highways -- it all seems to be under control.

As it should be. The TMC is the command center for Metro Atlanta traffic. It's a nexus of dozens of streams of traffic-related information that is, magically it seems, filtered and digested by some incredible software called Navigator into what looks like a giant video game.

The TMC was opened in 1996 and was part of improvements resulting from the '96 Olympics. Today, there are 56 HERO trucks patrolling metro Atlanta, 1,361 cameras statewide -- with 1,245 stationary cameras providing traffic speed info from around metro Atlanta alone -- and a Web site with live video feeds of metro Atlanta traffic.

And, the TMC doesn't just keep the info to itself. There is a network of 80 changeable message signs in the system, 18 of which are dedicated just to the HOV lanes. (The messages are automatically generated by the Navigator software as it digests, distills and filters the stream of data coming in.)

The TMC's mission is to monitor Georgia's interstates and state highways. It is also responsible for maintaining watch on, and helping to clear, all traffic incidents on those roadways. For the TMC, an incident is "cleared" when most of the lanes that were affected have reopened.

Besides the coolness factor of the TMC, it has become a standard of traffic safety and monitoring throughout the country. Officials from Florida visited recently to study the TMC system in order to better cope with hurricanes, said TMC spokeswoman Valerie Griffin during a recent tour through the facility.

As befits the critical nature of the TMC, it is locked away in a complex in Grant Park that also houses the GEMA offices and a military supplies warehouse. Visitors must pass a security checkpoint buttressed by the same kind of concrete dividers that can be found on the highway.

Once inside the TMC building, which is built around the round, operations center, visitors must sign in. Key entryways require ID cards for access. Visitors lucky enough to be taken to the operations floor are carefully guided and kept out of the way, not allowed to stray far, if at all.

While the TMC may not be the easiest place to visit in person, there are several easy, and instant, ways to access its services from just about anywhere. Motorists can call the TMC directly, either locally (404-635-6800) or toll-free (888-635-8287). They can call it on their cell phones by dialing *DOT (*368). They can check traffic through the TMC's own cameras on the Internet:

They can even set up their own personalized traffic report system, including traffic alerts and notifications from the DOT delivered right to their e-mail or palm-held device.

Or, they can simply sit in their car and wait, until they are spotted by one of the dozen people scanning the screens to send one of the HERO units to help.

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911:  The Road to Tyranny