Stillwater News Press

Local News

September 1, 2013

System allows fire trucks to more safely respond to emergencies

STILLWATER, Okla. — When firefighters respond to a call, they travel in fire trucks equipped with technology to change lights from red to green.

No, it’s not magic. It’s a traffic preemption system called EMTRAC.

The hands-free system is set up to reduce response times while clearing the intersection and preventing collisions.

“Stillwater Fire Department tries hard to achieve the national standard on deployment and response,” Fire Chief Tom Bradley said. “The national standard for having a fire truck on the scene is four minutes from the time they leave the station to the time they arrive. We try hard to meet that 90 percent of time.”

The fire department has used EMTRAC for the last two years. Here’s how it works:

A fire truck is driving down the road to a controlled intersection. A GPS signal inside the truck receives time and location coordinates from satellites.  The GPS communicates with computer software that computes the truck’s distance from a stoplight (called the zone). When the truck is in the zone, it captures signals from the light that allows it to change from red to green.

This clears the intersection for cars to move forward and out of the way. It also gives firefighters a clear view of what’s ahead.   

“There are 67 controlled traffic lights,” said master mechanic Don Dominick.

The zone is located from 1,500 to 2,000 feet from the light, but that can be altered depending on the traffic load.

“On OSU game days, we can adjust zone distances because of traffic count,” Dominick said.

The fire department serves Stillwater’s population of approximately 49,000 and also OSU’s 22,000 students.

All of the intersections that have traffic lights in the community, including the OSU campus, are EMTRAC preemption controlled intersections, Bradley said.

Technology dating to the 1970s was a little bit different.

“Preemption devices were coming into play when I first started 19 years ago,” Dominick said.

Fire Station No. 1 had a couple of switches on a panel inside the station. In an emergency, firefighters could flip the switch to control traffic on Main Street.

When this system became outdated, the department had nothing to use until the early ‘90s when the first preemption technology was developed.

This system was controlled by infrared technology. A light would flash and hit a sensor on the traffic light.

Former Fire Chief Marion Blackwell saw a need for something better. The infrared system couldn’t detect when two first responders were at the same intersection at once. LifeNet ambulances also use preemption systems.

Bradley said in 2009, Blackwell was successful in obtaining a $500,000 federal grant that would install EMTRAC.

“It was a long and arduous process,” Bradley said. “It included help from more than the fire department; traffic control and information technology were also instrumental in selecting EMTRAC and upgrading the current system.”

With a single turn signal, the system sets the next light to be changed. The fire truck must have its emergency lights on to use EMTRAC.

The system has been fully functional with no issues since it was installed.

“What I do want to point out is that even though we get a green light or are asking the system to change the lights to green, we still have a responsibility to make sure the traffic intersections are clear,” Bradley said.

In July, the fire department was recognized in EMTRAC’s national news spotlight.

“It’s one more piece of added safety that goes into the equation that allows us to make a rapid response,” he said. “We’re extremely blessed to have it.”

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