Opticom EVP helps Myrtle Beach Fire navigate increasingly busy streets

LOCATION

Myrtle Beach, SC

AGENCIES

Myrtle Beach Fire Department
Myrtle Beach Traffic Department
Myrtle Beach Public Works Department
Myrtle Beach Fire Truck emergency response

CHALLENGE

Rapid population growth and booming tourism had worsened traffic congestion in the city of Myrtle Beach, SC, creating a chaotic and dangerous environment for first responders trying to respond to emergencies quickly.

SOLUTION

After initially installing Opticom™ Emergency Vehicle Preemption on 25 intersections and 23 of its fire department vehicles in 2018, the city of Myrtle Beach expanded its existing deployment in 2020, adding the connected vehicle solution to another three department vehicles and 37 more intersections.

PERFORMANCE

Since installing Opticom EVP, the city’s fire department has not had a single accident involving one of its vehicles at a preempted intersection.

Highway 17 is a busy state road run by the South Carolina Department of Transportation (SCDOT), a major north-south thoroughfare that cuts right through Myrtle Beach (S.C.). On the night of July 13, 2019, a Myrtle Beach police officer was en route to support a fire call with its lights and sirens on, attempting to navigate 10 lanes of traffic against a red light. Another driver, who was traveling 55 miles per hour, “t-boned” the officer’s vehicle, spinning him into a ditch and sending him to the hospital. While he was ultimately treated and released, the outcome of the accident could have been much worse – an accident that is often preventable when the traffic signal preemption technology now in place is being utilized.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 104,000 people moved to the Myrtle Beach-Conway-North Myrtle Beach area over the past eight years, a population growth of 30 percent. Eighteen million more people annually vacation in Myrtle Beach, drawn to it by its temperate climate, miles of sandy beaches and plentiful golf courses.

But the area’s lagging road systems and overtaxed highways made it increasingly difficult for the Myrtle Beach Fire Department to navigate its busiest intersections. The fire department needed to be able to respond to calls faster to help improve patient outcomes and reduce property damage. Fire Chief Tom Gwyer had been pushing for emergency vehicle preemption ever since he had moved to the city from Virginia. In 2016, multiple city agencies began exploring the idea collaboratively.

By 2018, the city had installed Opticom™ Emergency Vehicle Preemption from Global Traffic Technologies (GTT) on 25 intersections and 23 of its vehicles. It worked so well, the city expanded its deployment in 2020, adding the connected vehicle solution to another three department vehicles and 37 more intersections.

This was a passion project of sorts for the career fire services veteran, which began when he was deputy chief and was approved a month before he was promoted.

“It was something I’ve always promoted; not just preemption, but the use of technology in the fire service in general,” Chief Gwyer said. “As I climbed through the ranks, I saw a lot accidents we had at intersections; and it was frustrating, knowing that many of them could have been prevented by giving us the green light.”

That multiple agencies were requesting this technology only helped convince city leaders of its necessity. While Chief Gwyer had long desired for his department to have preemption, he needed the support of the city’s traffic department, since ultimately, they control the traffic cabinets and have the relationships with the SCDOT. After a strategic planning session in 2016, the traffic department approached the fire department to see what they thought of this solution. According to Gwyer, having the traffic department on-board from the beginning was a huge feather in their cap, knowing how critical they would be to help implement it.

“When you have more than one agency asking for something, it gives you a lot more credibility,” Chief Gwyer said. “So now, it’s not something that just [the fire department] is asking for; it’s [a solution] that traffic, public works and risk management supports.”

When an emergency vehicle needs to navigate an intersection, the Opticom EVP system sends a request to the intersection’s controller ahead of its arrival. If the request is granted, the light turns green in time to clear a path for the emergency vehicle to travel safely and quickly through the intersection.

The idea is that when a Myrtle Beach fire truck gets within 2,500 feet of an intersection, the traffic light gets preempted and the truck has a green light (and a clear intersection) by the time it reaches the intersection. Pulling the air brakes on the fire apparatuses disables the Opticom signal, so traffic is no longer disrupted. For ambulances and ocean rescue trucks, the disable switch is on the driver’s door. Having the switch available to cancel preemption requests addressed one of the major concerns of city leaders, who didn’t want a fire truck sitting an auto accident and continuously preempting a traffic light, thus holding up traffic.

Myrtle Beach relies on the Opticom™ system’s accuracy, which is enabled by radios on each vehicle and intersection equipped, in addition to a Global Navigation Satellites System (GNSS) chipset for vehicle location. While Infrared (IR) preemption is “line of sight” – i.e., data can only be transmitted and received when the vehicle and intersection mast arm are in view of each other, with no obstacles in-between – the radio-based version of Opticom preemption is considered to be more precise because it uses GNSS and the signal remains unobstructed. Gwyer estimates the city responds to about 60 calls a day and makes around 400-450 runs a week. And with each call, multiple units are going through multiple intersections.

“[Opticom EVP] has been a huge benefit for us,” Chief Gwyer said. “Since we’ve had it installed, we have not had an accident involving a vehicle at a preempted intersection. We’ve seen our response travel times go down and we’ve been able to keep traffic flowing.”

Rather than using capital dollars, Myrtle Beach decided to buy the solution as a service, specifically Opticom Priority Control as a Service™ (PCaaS), a subscription-based model that offers the most flexible way for cities to deploy Opticom priority control. With PCaaS, GTT provides all necessary hardware, software and services, including project management, installation, training, maintenance, monitoring, reporting, repairs, replacement and optimization.

“[Choosing PCaaS] just made sense,” Chief Gwyer said. “We didn’t want to do a capital purchase and then 10-20 years down the road, have to deal with outdated technology.  We know what we’re paying per intersection and per vehicle and adding vehicles and intersections to the subscription is as easy as [sending] a couple emails and signing a couple documents.”

While it didn’t happen overnight, the project ultimately came to fruition through a collaborative effort between multiple city agencies, GTT, the SCDOT and others with a vested interest in helping make Myrtle Beach a safer community.

“GTT’s been phenomenal,” Chief Gwyer said. “When you take on a project of this magnitude, you know it’s going to be a heavy-lift; but it was made so much easier by GTT and our traffic people. I do not have one single complaint with the product or the process of implementation.”

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