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Technology Clears Path for Emergency Vehicles

April 25, 2001|JEANNE WRIGHT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's risky business when police and firefighters responding to emergency calls must race through busy intersections, relying only on their sirens and flashing lights to alert motorists to get out of the way.

Some drivers--windows rolled up, stereos blaring, cell phones on--don't see or hear emergency vehicles until they are practically on top of them.

"As police officers, we see it all the time," said Monrovia Police Chief Joseph A. Santoro. Many drivers fail to yield simply because they aren't paying attention, he said. "Or they get confused and don't know what to do" when they suddenly see an emergency vehicle approaching.

With that in mind, police and firefighters in Monrovia today will begin testing an advanced traffic safety system--which incorporates a unique system of visual warning signs--designed to prevent collisions involving emergency vehicles.

If a police cruiser, for example, is involved in a pursuit, the officer can activate the system to clear a four-way intersection by turning three of the signals red and giving the green light to the cruiser and the vehicle being pursued. A display board would alert motorists and pedestrians that police are chasing another vehicle through the intersection.

The Monrovia installation, involving 26 police and 12 fire vehicles, represents the first full field test of the Emergency Vehicle Intersection Early Warning System, known as E-Views, a collaboration of a local company and space agency engineers.

"In the big picture, this is going to save people's lives, whether it prevents collisions or allows emergency vehicles to get to the scene faster," Santoro said.

Fifty-two people died nationwide in accidents involving emergency vehicles in 1999, the most recent year for which statistics are available, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The system's developer, E-Views Safety Systems Inc. of Agoura Hills, teamed up with NASA researchers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to develop the system.

E-Views, working with the Caltech-operated Pasadena laboratory, applied technology developed for space communications into its system. What marks an advance from current systems--which can preempt traffic signals to clear the way for emergency vehicles or to speed buses along during rush hour--is the addition of signboards that instantaneously alert drivers and pedestrians, said Jim Davidson, E-Views' founder and chief executive.

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So-called intelligent traffic systems have been around for about 30 years and have had some success in reducing accidents as well as emergency vehicle response time.

But E-Views' brightly lit display boards, positioned on the mast arms above the centers of intersections, add a new dimension, Monrovia's Santoro said.

The electronic signs will display an icon representing an emergency vehicle and show from which direction the vehicle is approaching the intersection. The symbols moving across the display board will be synchronized with the movements of the emergency vehicle being tracked.

The board also will flash a warning message visible to drivers and pedestrians at all four approaches to an intersection. Emergency personnel will be able to program messages such as "Warning: Emergency Vehicle" or "Police Pursuit," or report accidents and detours.

Although Monrovia has never suffered a fatal accident involving an emergency vehicle, the city was chosen to test E-Views because of its commitment to using state-of-the-art technology in law enforcement, Santoro said.

The system is in place at seven intersections along Huntington Drive and at the intersection of Myrtle Avenue and Duarte Road.

Working with NASA and JPL, E-Views incorporated recent advances in digital communications and vehicle-positioning technology into the system's components.

Engineers used lightweight materials for the display signs and ultra-bright light-emitting diodes to reduce electricity usage, said CEO Davidson, who with company President David Harshman and others has been developing the idea for more than 15 years.

Emergency vehicles carry transponders that communicate through a ground-based microwave system connected to a central traffic-management system or control center, said Ed Freudenburg, a company spokesman. The system also prioritizes emergency vehicles going through an intersection to prevent collisions and to improve response times to the most serious calls.

The company installed the Monrovia test system free of charge. In future installations, Freudenburg said, the system is expected to cost about $25,000 per intersection to equip and install.

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In Los Angeles, a traffic system called Opticom, marketed by 3M Co., has been in place for several years at intersections on Moorpark Street in the San Fernando Valley, said Glenn Ogura, principal traffic engineer in the city's Department of Transportation.

Although the system has been effective in improving safety, Ogura said, his department is exploring the feasibility of installing systems using newer technology.

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