Back to Search Page
View printer-friendly Word document
The Role of the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) In Preparing for Security Incidents and Transportation System Response
Michael D. Meyer, Ph.D., P.E.
Georgia Institute of Technology
The terrorist events of September 11, 2001 provide a good illustration of the challenges facing states and metropolitan areas in preparing for and responding to unexpected security incidents or natural disasters. Given the suddenness of the terrorist incidents and their unexpected nature, it is not surprising that there was some confusion and lack of coordination in managing the transportation system in the aftermath. In some cases, transportation operating agencies did not know what other local agencies were doing. In others, enforcement agencies were telling transportation operators to cease service exactly at the time when service was needed to move people away from the scene. Incompatible communication systems and no single source of public information caused confusion in organizational and public response. One lesson from September 11th is paramount—effective coordination and communication among the many different operating agencies in a region and across the nation is absolutely essential. Such coordination is needed to allow enforcement/security/safety responses to occur in an expeditious manner, while at the same time still permitting the transportation system to handle the possibly overwhelming public response to the incident. Complementary to this is the need to make sure the public has clear and concise information about the situation and what actions they should take.
Although the immediate organizational response to security incidents and disasters will be the responsibility of security/public safety agencies, there is an important role that metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) can play in promoting coordinated planning in anticipation of unexpected events or natural disasters. In addition, the MPO could also provide a centralized location of information on transportation system conditions and local/national responses that might be useful in an emergency. This white paper examines these possible roles and raises other issues that should be considered by MPO officials. Disaster/security planning is divided into several components that reflect the different elements in dealing with such events, e.g., prevention, surveillance/monitoring, information dissemination/ communications, incident response, and system recovery. The prospective role of the MPO in each of these components of an incident/disaster event response is discussed.
Major Discussion Points
The major discussion points for this paper are:
· The short timeframe and public safety aspects in responding to unforeseen emergency situations require a command and control organizational structure for providing immediate and effective allocation of emergency response resources. Thus, the planning for, and actual response to, emergency situations in a metropolitan area is the primary responsibility of the emergency response/public safety/operations agencies in the region.
· Because of the widely varying political and institutional contexts for metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) in the U.S., there is no singular model that can best describe the most appropriate role for MPOs in security/disaster planning.
· However, because of its role as a forum for cooperative decision making in a metropolitan area, and its responsibility for allocating financial resources to improving the performance of the transportation system, the MPO does have a role to play in security/disaster planning.
· The role of the MPO will most likely vary by stage of the security/disaster incident (e.g., the MPO’s role might be very different in developing a collaborative strategy to prevent harmful effects of events versus in the actual post event investigation activities).
Characterizing the Nature of the Threat
The September 11, 2001 terrorist incidents have focused attention on large scale, area wide responses to sudden terrorist incidents. There is a wide range of such incidents that could cause varying levels of disruption to the transportation system. A recent report recommending a national research and development strategy for improving surface transportation security presented the list of possible threat scenarios shown in Figure 1, a list that originated in a U.S. Department of Transportation vulnerability assessment of the U.S. transportation system. As shown, the nature of the threats was characterized primarily as being a physical, biological, chemical or cyber attack. The types of responses would clearly be different dependent on what type of attack occurred.
The magnitude and scope of an incident will clearly be an important determinant for gauging the appropriate public safety/emergency response. And most studies of sudden disruptions to the transportation network, either from natural or man-made causes, have concluded that the redundancies in a metropolitan area’s transportation system provides a rerouting capability that allows the flow of people and vehicles around disrupted network links. A national research and development study on surface transportation security observed that “experiences with natural disasters suggests that even the
Table 1: Scenarios Considered in the U.S. DOT Vulnerability Assessment
Source: As reported in National Research Council, Improving Surface Transportation Security, A Research and Development Strategy, Washington D.C: National Academy Press,
1999; originally in U.S. DOT, Surface Transportation Vulnerability Assessment, Final Report, Washington D.C. May, 1998.
simultaneous destruction of multiple elements of the system has less impact on its ability to operate than one might expect. The surface transportation infrastructure has many redundancies and is quite resilient.” This may be true. However, as shown by the events of September 11th, a new factor must be incorporated into understanding the characteristics of the threat and the resulting public response. With high levels of uncertainty associated with the exact nature of an incident that happens suddenly and with great visibility to the public, the transportation system must not only handle the emergency response to the incident itself, but also the likely mass public response to the perceived threat. As shown in New York City and Washington D.C., large numbers of people were trying to escape the immediate areas surrounding the incidents. After a short time, this escape from immediate danger became a much larger movement to leave the city itself. The movements of people away from the incidents often conflicted with the strategies of public safety/security/emergency management agencies to limit the extent of the threat (e.g., shut down the subway so that possible perpetrators could not escape, which at the same time was the major means of evacuation for tens of thousands of downtown commuters).
Terrorist attacks are sudden and without notice. Without knowing where, when, or how a terrorist attack is likely to occur, the most effective response strategy (absent preventing the attack to begin with) is for State/local/national authorities to develop flexible strategies that can be adjusted quickly and appropriately to the type of incident that actually occurs. This type of strategy requires management coordination, compatible communication systems, and real time information feedback to decision makers that permits near immediate changes in strategy when required. This approach also requires mechanisms for disseminating information to the general public that provides the most up-to-date guidance on the best transportation options for avoiding bottlenecks in the transportation system.
For purposes of this paper, the approach to handling potential security/disaster incidents is divided into the following six elements or phases.
Prevention: This has several components, ranging from the actual stopping of an attack before it occurs, to providing improved facility designs that prevent large scale destruction. Surveillance, monitoring, and sensing technologies will likely play an important role in the prevention phase of an incident.
Mitigation : Reducing the harmful impact of an attack as it occurs and in the immediate aftermath. This entails identifying the most effective
routing for emergency vehicles as well as for the evacuation of large numbers of people, as well as providing effective communication systems among emergency response teams and for general public information.
Monitoring: Recognizing that an incident is underway, characterizing it, and monitoring developments. Clearly, surveillance, monitoring, and sensing technologies would be critical to this phase of incident response, as would public information.
Recovery: Facilitating rapid reconstruction of services after an incident. Depending on the degree of damage to the community and/or transportation system, regaining some level of normalcy will require bringing the transportation system back to adequate levels of operation.
Investigation: Determining what happened in an attack, how it happened, and who was responsible. This is primarily a security/police activity that reconstructs the incident and determines causality and responsibility.
Institutional Conducting a self-assessment of organizational actions before,
Learning: during, and after an incident. This element provides a feedback to the prevention element in that by understanding what went wrong or right in response to an incident, steps can be taken to prevent possible new threats.
It is the thesis of this paper that the MPO can undertake actions in each of these phases of a security/disaster incident that will benefit the region. Indeed, in many cases, existing hurricane and disaster evacuation plans are a good starting point and may be sufficient for the types of incidents anticipated. Before identifying what possible actions might be taken by MPOs in connection with the security/disaster phases described above, it is first important to identify the possible roles for an MPO in transportation system operations.
Characterizing Possible MPO Roles in System Operations and Security/Disaster Planning
As noted earlier, the role of MPOs in regional planning and decision-making will vary from one region to another. In some cases, MPOs have a long history of strongly influencing operations strategies for the regional transportation system. In others, the MPOs have very little authority or responsibility beyond that of developing the transportation plan and transportation improvement program. Recently, the Federal Highway Administration and many other groups have been looking closely at institutional strategies for providing metropolitan-level coordination of transportation system operations. In particular, the role of the MPO in such coordination has been the topic of much discussion. As part of this discussion, the Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations (AMPO) has developed a technical paper on the range of roles for MPOs in planning for system operations. The roles outlined in this paper are a good point of departure for the possible roles that MPOs could play in security/disaster planning, and are thus described below.
Traditional: The MPO incorporatessystem management and operations (M&O) Role: in its ongoing transportation planning activities. The focus would
be on specific M&O projects that arise as part of the transportation planning process; but the primary responsibility for operations-type projects would rest elsewhere, most likely with the region’s operations agencies.
Convener: The MPO would act as a forum where operations plans could be discussed and coordinated with other plans in the region. Regular meetings on operations issues would be held, but the MPO would still not be responsible for developing a regional operations plan.
Champion: The MPO works aggressively to develop a regional consensus on operations planning. MPO planners work with operating agencies to create programs and projects that improve system performance. The MPO takes the lead in developing regional agreements on coordinated operations.
Developer: The MPO would develop regional operations plans in addition to incorporating operations strategies into the transportation plan. System-oriented performance measures would be used to identify strategic operations gaps in the transportation system.
Operator: The MPO would be responsible for implementing operations strategies that were developed as part of the MPO-led planning process.
These five potential roles for MPOs in transportation systems management and operations show increasing levels of involvement and responsibility. It is not likely that many MPOs would adopt the last role, that is, act as the implementer of operations strategies, although such a role has been adopted by a very limited number of MPOs for very specific strategies. Given the strong influence of security/public safety/emergency management agencies in dealing with security/disaster incidents, it is likely that the most appropriate MPO roles will be found in the first two or three described above. Indeed, the aftermath of the September 11th incidents has resulted in the MPOs in New York and Washington D.C. playing a more active role in security/disaster planning. In particular, the focus has been on funding better communications technologies that can be used for a coordinated response to future incidents.
MPO Roles Relating to Phases of Security/Disaster Incidents
Figure 1 presents a concept of what roles an MPO might be able to adopt for different phases of a security/disaster incident. As shown, the major roles for an MPO would primarily be as a convener or champion for many of the actions that relate to the prevention, response/mitigation, monitoring and recovery phases. In each case, the MPO would most likely focus on some aspect of the transportation system that is part of the larger regional response to security/disaster incidents. Thus, although Table 2 shows the MPO possibly adopting a developer role for monitoring/information, this would likely be focused on the such things as traveler information systems, and not the types of strategies and actions that would be the primary responsibility of security/public safety/emergency management agencies. As shown, there is very little role likely for the MPO in the investigation phase.
Table 2 presents types of actions that an MPO could take in each phase of a security/disaster incident. The list in Table 2 is not intended to suggest that MPOs would undertake all of the actions shown. Rather, some subset of this list could be adopted by the MPO in support of a region’s strategy for dealing with security/disaster incidents. Each of these actions fits into one or more of the MPO roles shown in Figure 1 and discussed above.
Given the MPO’s strengths in technical analysis and transportation planning, the actions that seem most appropriate for the MPO in the context of security/disaster planning are:
Figure 1--Potential MPO Roles in Security/Disaster Incident Phase
Given the MPO’s responsibilities for funding strategies and projects that will improve the performance of the transportation system, the actions that seem most appropriate for the MPO in the context of security/disaster planning are:
· Funding new strategies/technologies/projects that can help prevent events
· Funding and perhaps coordinating regional transportation surveillance system that can identify potential danger prior to its occurring
· Funding communications systems and other technology to speed response to incident
· Funding recovery strategies
Given the MPO’s role as a forum for cooperative decision-making, the actions that seem most appropriate for the MPO in the context of security/disaster planning are:
· Providing a forum for security/safety agencies to coordinate surveillance and prevention strategies
· Coordinating drills and exercises among transportation providers to practice emergency plans
· Coordinating with security officials in development of prevention strategies
· Providing forum for discussions on coordinating emergency response
· Coordinating public information dissemination strategies
· Acting as a forum for developing appropriate recovery strategies
· Coordinating the stockpiling of strategic road/bridge components for rapid reconstruction
· Coordinating changes to multi-agency actions that will improve future responses
One of the more interesting and perhaps critical roles that the MPO can play is in the institutional learning phase of a security/disaster incident. In this phase, the MPO can collect relevant information on the manner in which the region responded to the incident, not only the official response in terms of the movement of emergency and public safety vehicles, but also how the public reacted and the strategies adopted by travelers in responding to any disruption. With this data, the MPO and other agencies can analyze the recent incident response in order to develop improved strategies for handling the next incident. The MPO is in a unique position to adopt a lead role in this institutional learning phase of a security/disaster incident.
This paper has outlined possible roles for MPOs in a regional strategy for handling security/disaster incidents. The role that is appropriate for any particular MPO will very much depend on the political and institutional context for that region, and the expertise and capabilities of the MPO staff. Given the regional nature of an incident of the scale and scope of the events of September 11th or of a natural disaster such as an earthquake, the MPO has potentially an important role to play. In fact, existing MPO hurricane and disaster evacuation plans are a good starting point and may be sufficient for the types of incidents anticipated. Clearly, the security, public safety and transportation operating agencies have the primary responsibility for responding to such incidents. However, outside of the immediate urgency of response when agencies have the opportunity to think about the requirements for a coordinated response to potential incidents and how to handle the subsequent demands on the transportation system, the MPO as a forum for cooperative decision making, as a funder of regional transportation strategies, and as a region’s core capability in technical analysis of the transportation network has a critical role to play.
National Research Council, Improving Surface Transportation Security, A Research and Development Strategy, Washington D.C: National Academy Press, 1999
 Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations, "The MPO Role in Management and Operations," Washington D.C. Aug. 28, 2001; Presentation made by John Mason, 10th Annual Meeting of the Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations, Atlanta, GA, Sept. 19, 2001.