When lights and sirens are activated, fire truck and ambulance drivers in Chesterfield and Henrico counties have equipment that can turn traffic lights from red to green when responding to emergency room.
The bottom line: Safer, smoother travel on congested streets, according to officials in the two counties, which began making the equipment standard in 2000.
This is not the case in Richmond, which has many more traffic lights and more emergency calls.
Chip Decker, chief executive of the Richmond Ambulance Authority, has been advocating for a traffic preemption system for emergency vehicles since he took office in 2009.
As a result, first responder vehicles often have to wait behind idling vehicles for a light to change during busy travel times, and even when a lane is clear it can be cut off as state law requires that all emergency vehicles stop at red. lights to ensure intersections are clear before proceeding.
That could change.
City Hall plans to connect to a federally funded Smart Cities initiative that is designed to integrate the city’s traffic signals with a regional Automated Vehicle Location (AVL) system that will change traffic signals to emergency vehicles, buses and other public vehicles equipped with AVL.
The project was included in the 2021-22 capital budget and was to be supported by $1.7 million in federal funds, although there is no public sign yet that the project is progressing.
City officials as well as city council members did not respond to questions about the project whose funding involves paying for AVL software and equipment.
Decker said he had been involved in discussions about the system, but was unaware that it was included in last year’s capital budget.
He expressed disappointment that the wording of the budget book did not explicitly refer to ambulances or police cars and that RAA had not received any information on the status of the project.
When complete, the budget book says the system would create computer links between the traffic lights, the GRTC’s AVL system, and the Richmond Fire Department’s central AVL system.
It would be a “next generation” system that could identify the location of AVL vehicles and, based on their location, plot a better route and anticipate traffic lights on that route during emergency response.
Current systems like those in counties mount infrared beams in vehicles that transmit to receivers on traffic lights that allow the lights to change. The new system should be faster because lights could be changed along the route before the vehicle arrives.
According to the information budget book, once the system goes live, it should improve emergency response times and increase safety.
The real question mark is whether the system will go live soon.
The system has been in discussion since 2013, the Free Press said, and became possible thanks to a federally funded effort to create “smart” traffic lights that are linked to a computerized control center.
According to Public Works, about 400 intersections with traffic lights have already been linked to a central traffic control computer, with a project underway to link traffic lights at 55 more intersections. Due to be completed next year, the development will mean that 95% of the city’s 480 intersections with traffic lights will be converted, with the remaining 25 intersections to be incorporated into the traffic control center within a year or two.
The 2022-23 capital budget indicated that Richmond now had the funding to continue to connect traffic signals to additional intersections in the system.
As in neighboring departments, fire trucks are the priority.
As at Richmond, neither Chesterfield nor Henrico fitted police cruisers with infrared equipment to change lights.
Henrico equips certain motorcycles with the necessary equipment to escort funeral processions, parades and similar traffic blocking operations.
Richmond Police Officer Brendan Leavy, president of the Richmond Coalition of Police, said his organization is taking a wait-and-see approach to AVL equipment in police cruisers in the city.
“The fire department is looking into this,” Officer Leavy said. “If it works for them and reduces accidents with public safety vehicles, then I would be all for it.”