Authorities failed to realize the magnitude of a growing, miles-long backup of traffic along Interstate 81 in December and instead focused on individual problem areas, according to a recently completed after-action report from the Virginia Department of Transportation.
A powerful snowstorm swept through the region Dec. 9-10, dumping about a foot of snow around Bristol. Hundreds of vehicles stalled and became stuck in the interstate’s northbound lanes, backing up for about 21 hours from the Exit 19 area in Abingdon all the way to at least Exit 69 in Tennessee, according to reports.
Following the storm, VDOT, which manages snow removal on the interstate, conducted an after-action review of its response. The Bristol Herald Courier obtained a copy of the after-action report, a letter from VDOT’s chief engineer regarding the report and other documentation through Freedom of Information Act requests.
VDOT Chief Engineer Garrett Moore indicated that while other areas of the state fared well during the storm, the segment of I-81 in the Bristol District “experienced a major congestion event.”
A number of factors contributed to the backup, including an abnormally high amount of truck traffic, vehicles getting stuck on the stretch of highway’s numerous inclines, a lack of cameras that kept officials from realizing the growing problem and inexperienced drivers.
But it wasn’t all problematic as the report found several positive outcomes, such as the state’s pre-treatment of the interstate and Bristol’s efforts to help in the city.
“Events with some similar impacts have occurred in the past, but have not been experienced to this same degree in recent years,” Moore told the Bristol Herald Courier. “Although there are no absolutes in dealing with nature, executing the tasks in the after-action review is intended to prevent similar events in the future. We are always committed to improving safety wherever possible.”
Safety is VDOT’s first and top priority, he said.
“Preventing another situation where travelers are stuck in the cold out on our roads is exceptionally important to us,” Moore said. “During and after this event, we quickly recognized the need to fully evaluate what could have prevented or mitigated it.”
To varying degrees, Moore said VDOT regularly conducts reviews and after-action evaluations following crashes or incidents that result in abnormal or severe impacts, such as the situation on I-81.
Depending on an incident’s severity or individual impacts, a review may be as simple as checking a police report to determine what factors led to the cause of a crash or as expanded as a table-top review of a major incident with multiple responding agencies, Moore said.
Winter storm approaches
In advance of the storm, VDOT’s Bristol District completed pretreating operations along the interstate on the morning of Saturday, Dec. 8, the after-action review states. By afternoon, snow removal contractors began staging equipment and monitoring routes for planned removal.
C.L. Fencing, of Lebanon, Virginia, is the primary contractor that works on I-81 from the Virginia/Tennessee line to mile marker 26, according to a contract obtained by the Herald Courier through a FOIA request.
The VDOT team also staged motor graders and one four-wheel-drive tractor with plowing and towing capabilities in the area, the report states. Those items were ultimately deemed successful, although the tractor ran out of fuel, and the report urges VDOT to use the equipment during future storms.
Teams augmented staffing for the storm, which included monitoring staff in the local traffic operations center and the on-the-road Safety Service Patrol units, which can assist drivers.
The traffic operations center for the Bristol, Lynchburg and Salem districts is located in Salem and monitors traffic in the three districts. Typically, the local traffic operations center has one supervisor and an operator for night shift and one supervisor and three operators for day shift, VDOT said. For the storm, the day shift was comprised of one supervisor and five operators, and the night shift had one supervisor and three operators.
Moderate to heavy snowfall struck the area between 7:30-8:30 a.m. Sunday, Dec. 9, the report states.
The problems began around 8:25 a.m., when the traffic operations center received a report that the northbound right lane was closed near mile marker 19.6 in Abingdon, due to a disabled tractor-trailer. Additional reports of disabled and stuck vehicles were reported at mile marker 29 around 8:45 a.m., the report states.
As heavy snow continued to fall and lanes initially became blocked with disabled vehicles, additional vehicles became stuck on upslope grades of the interstate. The report notes that there are 24 uphill grades in the affected areas of I-81, and many of those sections of highway are not visible via the handful of cameras placed along the interstate, which made it difficult for VDOT staff to monitor the situation, the report indicates.
With disabled and stuck vehicles blocking the roadway, and many drivers abandoning their vehicles, traffic continued to back up and plows were unable to work.
Possible detours along the route also became impassable, the report states.
Throughout the event, the Virginia State Police dispatch in Wytheville was alerted 1,099 times and 202 reports required work by the traffic operations center and VDOT.
In all, the report states 24 pieces of snow removal equipment were assigned to the affected portion of I-81 from the state line to the 29 mile marker, including 15 two- to three-axle trucks and six single-axle trucks, two motor graders and a four-wheel-drive tractor. Eight snow plowing contract monitors worked in the area. Three patrol units were dispatched along the corridor as well as the incident management coordinator, the report states.
Many contract personnel worked to plow the interstate as disabled vehicles were towed free of backups. As more vehicles became disabled heading south, snow removal equipment was unable to plow or treat roads where vehicles blocked travel lanes, which created further worsening conditions, the report states.
A number of factors contributed
Workers in the field found many issues along the interstate that contributed to the backup, including tractor-trailers traveling without chains on their tires, and some vehicles were over-width, the report states.
The after-action review notes that snow chains could have prevented some of the commercial vehicles from being disabled. While they’re not recommended in every instance, snow chains may have assisted during the storm, the report indicates.
During the event, there were also inaccurate reports indicating that backups were decreasing throughout the day on Sunday, Dec. 9.
“This was not accurate, likely due to efforts of on-scene personnel continuing to clear disabled vehicles, which reduced individual backups, but wasn’t accounting for additional backups further south,” the report states.
The report also found issue with language barriers and truck drivers not having knowledge of tow hooks. Travelers along I-81 often speak many languages.
Washington County Dispatch, which received dozens of calls from concerned and stranded drivers during the storm, has the ability to answer calls from non-English speaking individuals.
Donna Hall, 911 communications manager, said her office has a language line.
“I, myself, have used it and it works well,” Hall said. “If we are unable to understand their need and an interpreter is needed we will conference us and the caller to the language line.”
VDOT has translation services available through its Customer Service Center, which can be reached at 1-800-FOR-ROAD (367-7623).
“We are currently working to raise awareness of this service both internally and externally, to assist with future incidents,” said Lindsay LeGrand, a VDOT spokeswoman.
Due to issues with tow hooks, VDOT has purchased a variety of tow hooks that will be available to operators pulling VDOT-owned equipment such as tractors, LeGrand said.
The report also noted that although the contractor assigned to the area has been performing snow removal for years, some drivers who worked during the storm were inexperienced.
LeGrand said the contractors and operators in the affected areas completed additional training in late December. VDOT continues monitoring performance to determine whether any further supplemental training would be helpful.
VDOT contracts require that all snow contractor and operators complete training annually, prior to the each snow season, LeGrand said.
In addition, the report notes that a call was made at 11 p.m. from emergency management officials in Bristol requesting assistance from the Virginia National Guard. The report says no assistance arrived.
“The severe weather conditions in Bristol created tremendous challenges for everyone in Virginia’s emergency response community, and we understand there were gaps in communication,” said National Guard spokesman A.A. “Cotton” Puryear.
The National Guard receives its missions from the Virginia Department of Emergency Management and does not respond directly to requests for assistance. Localities, such as Bristol, make requests to VDEM for additional capabilities when needed, and then VDEM decides what organization can provide the appropriate response.
When tasked by VDEM, the National Guard then makes contact to coordinate the details with the locality to get a better understanding of what exactly they need and what assistance can be provided.
“From everything we understood of the situation, VNG assistance would not have been effective, so we did not take any action to move personnel and equipment into the area,” Puryear said.
He added that when there is a threat of severe weather, it’s important that National Guard support be requested as early as possible so capabilities can be staged at the right location to be able to rapidly respond if needed.
“In future events, the VNG can stage personnel and equipment at key locations if requested by a locality and it supports VDEM’s overall regional response plan,” Puryear said.
The after-action report found a few positive aspects of the I-81 response. VDOT and the VSP worked well together during the backup, coordinating efforts throughout the ordeal. The report also highlights the city of Bristol, Virginia’s response when the Fire Department, Police Department and Public Works joined efforts to clear the road and assist drivers.
Preparing for the future
In his letter, Moore, the chief engineer, ordered VDOT and its staff to prepare for next winter, following up on a few specific aspects of the I-81 backup.
Moore said VDOT must ensure an emphasis on “situational awareness beyond the immediate tasks at hand.” Staff must review with operations center personnel the importance of relaying the full picture as individual reports come in, he said.
The report notes that while an incident command system was established in the field at each individual scene, the structure did not grow to the scale needed for the overall event. Moving forward, VDOT maintenance will coordinate the incident command system plan.
The department will also provide retraining for situational awareness, weather and incident processes to all personnel involved in managing the response. VDOT will also consider regional structures that incorporate multi-district responses, such as bringing in Salem efforts to the Bristol District.
VDOT will evaluate staging more resources near known problem areas, such as inclines, where vehicles became stuck and disabled during the storm. The report advises staging wreckers, four-wheel-drive tractors and motor graders in the vicinity of problem areas.
Communications will be strengthened to provide better inter-agency coordination and information sharing with the public, the report states. Moore requested that the operations division administrator and the communications director broaden the scope of conditions that would prompt VDOT to communicate a more aggressive “do not travel” message to the public.
At the time of the storm, VDOT and VSP urged drivers to use caution and postpone travel if not necessary.
By June 17, the agency should develop permanent protocols that give specific snowfall forecast rate thresholds — such as more than an inch per hour — or certain ice accumulation levels, to advise the public not to travel, Moore wrote.
He also advised officials to partner with industry groups, such as AAA, to communicate recommendations to potential road users.
One aspect mentioned in the report includes re-evaluating the decision-making process for entering in a unified command during large and complex incidents to appropriately manage resources, develop strategies and implement an action plan to improve response during an incident.
Due to the high number of incidents associated with the congestion, VDOT said each individual disabled vehicle was not reported, resulting in a lack of field reports. Additionally, the full extent of the backup was not relayed from field observations back to field offices or VDOT.
During future incidents, crews will be on standby to physically check and verify the length of the backup and report back to incident command centers. It adds that crews should travel in the opposite direction of the backups to verify reports.
The report states that emergency crossovers between the northbound and southbound lanes in Washington County are limited. The local team now is considering improving crossovers, which could provide an alternate route for traffic.
LeGrand said the agency recently reviewed locations for potential crossovers, as well as existing accesses. This spring, VDOT plans to partner with VSP to evaluate and develop detailed plans and estimates for each location. Once plans and priorities are established, the team will work to identify funding, the spokesperson said.
Due to a limited number of traffic cameras on the interstate locally, VDOT is also identifying priority locations to place portable or temporary cameras during the winter months until funds can be identified for permanent cameras, LeGrand said.
Permanent cameras will be added at exits 17 and 19 when improvement projects for those interchanges begin.
The report says well-being checks of travelers should have been completed earlier in the process. During the storm, the team thought traffic would move again once vehicles at the front of the backup were cleared, but it didn’t. In the future, VDOT said agencies will request well-being checks during backups extending beyond the two-hour mark.
In addition, personnel will look for options to release the traffic to either alternate routes off the interstate or change the direction of traffic.