Howard County rescue vehicles have electronic sensors to change traffic signals during emergencies, but they can't use them on state-controlled roads -- the county's busiest -- for at least a year.
The source of the problem is that while the State Highway Administration (SHA) prefers one way of controlling traffic signals for emergency vehicles, Howard County is requesting another -- fTC the only jurisdiction in the state to do so.
State highway officials are testing the system Howard prefers for a year at one intersection: U.S. 40 and Rogers Avenue. Until the state gives its approval, fire and rescue vehicles will get through other intersections on state roads the old-fashioned way: with lights, sirens and plenty of caution.
"We can't do much of anything while the state does their own testing to satisfy their own technicians," said Deputy Chief Raymond Faith of the county Department of Fire and Rescue.
He said the signal controls are most needed along Route 175, U.S. 1 and U.S. 40, the most congested state roads in the county.
"If you have a backup of traffic, we just sit in line until traffic lets us loose," Mr. Faith said. "With the gridlock we've seen during suppertime, we see more of a need for this [system] all the time. It allows us to give quick response."
Other jurisdictions use Opticom, a strobe system that Howard officials say isn't effective on the county's curved roads. The SHA began testing Emtrac -- the less-expensive electronic system preferred by Howard officials -- in Ellicott City Sept. 1.
State officials said the yearlong test could lead to changes in some state traffic control methods if the county system proves better.
"We decided to give it a shot," said Bob Snyder, SHA assistant chief for traffic operations. "We'd be foolish not to try it. We want to see if it's better or equal."
Either way, the technology is not new. Both strobe lights and electronic sensors have been used by fire companies nationwide for years. In many urban areas, mass transit buses use the devices to manipulate light signals for a quicker ride, state traffic engineers said.
With Emtrac, automatic electronic sensors and compasses on rescue vehicles can change traffic lights and clear intersections 1,800 feet before the emergency vehicles get there. Howard officials said the Opticom system, which requires strobe lights to directly trigger receivers in the traffic pole box, doesn't guarantee the light will change because a sensor on traffic lights has to pick up the signals.
The Emtrac system also is less expensive, state traffic engineers said. It costs about $4,000 for a receiver to be installed in a traffic light box and about $1,700 for each --board-mounted transmitter. The Opticom system costs at least a few thousand dollars more, state officials said, though they couldn't give exact figures.
If the state does not approve the Emtrac system, county firefighters will continue using it, said Ed Walter, county chief of traffic engineering, but they won't be able to use it on state highways.
County officials say the test site already has shown a need for the system. So far this month, there have been 38 times when emergency vehicles needed to change the traffic signal at the sloped Ellicott City intersection.
The Ellicott City area has always been a problem for emergency vehicles, officials said. Fire officials began using the Emtrac devices at three county-controlled lights on narrow, winding Main Street about 1 1/2 years ago.
"It gives us an advantage," said Karen Dausch, a firefighter and emergency medical technician at the Ellicott City station. "It's frustrating when people can hear you, and they still try to make it across the intersection, especially when you're running to a heart attack or something serious."
Seven additional signals on county roads in Columbia will be equipped for the Emtrac sensors before December, Mr. Walter said. Six Howard rescue vehicles are already equipped with transmitters in preparation for the additions.
One intersection targeted to receive sensors is Governor Warfield and Little Patuxent parkways in Columbia's Town Center.
A fire engine coming from west Columbia's Banneker station heading east on Little Patuxent Parkway can encounter a 96-second red light. And if there are other cars ahead of it, a rescue driver may have to wait even longer.