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Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission

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Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission receives the Technology Award for 511PAConnect, a new, trapped-traveler emergency communications tool that allows incident response teams to communicate via automated phone or text message directly with motorists who are trapped in a roadway backup. Extreme weather events are unpredictable, unavoidable, and can wreak havoc on travelers through road closures or by trapping them between exits. In 2016, Winter Storm Jonas stranded hundreds of travelers along a remote mountainous stretch of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. In emergency situations drivers will turn to any available source for news and updates, often including social media. 

This patchwork collection of news sources leads to misinformation, buried emergency communications, and overwhelmed agencies scrambling to monitor too many platforms at once. The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission (PTC) realized the need for unplanned, instantaneous, two-way communications for emergency situations.

511PAConnect delivers timely and accurate information to ALL effected travelers without prior registration or awareness of the program. When PTC opens an emergency event, an alert is immediately sent to all cell phones in the impact area. By following instructions on their phones, drivers select their preferred means of communication and can communicate questions or concerns directly with PTC. The tool asks for situational information (type of car, number of passengers, etc.) and allows users to share their location so PTC, PennDOT, and the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency can understand the scope of the emergency and quickly shape their response.

511PAConnect is a life saving tool created with existing technology familiar to the public and agency staff. In its first year of operation, it has proven tremendously successful by meeting and exceeding agency goals and expectations. During the first five emergency events, non-emergency 911 calls decreased, customers engaged with the tool and responded positively (including “thank you” texts), and a trapped queue was avoided thanks to a precautionary alert.