Hillsborough County is the first to install new emergency traffic beacons in case of power outages
The beacons run on solar power, meaning they will continuously receive power, even if the grid were out for a long period.
Hillsborough County drivers might have noticed a new attachment to the traffic signals they use every day. They might have been even more noticeable immediately after Hurricane Ian.
The county is implementing a new piece of technology aimed at making road intersections safer during power outage events. They’re called Power Outage Emergency Beacons, or POEBs.
When normal traffic lights go out, the beacon with a blinking red light turns the intersection into a four-way stop.
During the recent hurricane, the county reported that 168 intersections were impacted due to wind gusts and power failures. That’s a higher mark than what the county saw in 2017, when 125 traffic intersections failed in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.
The backup battery on traffic signals only lasts from 6-8 hours. Once they go out, it can create dangerous scenarios for motorists.
“When we have 568 intersections [controlled by the county] and only 17 signal staff, you obviously can't get that many technicians to that many signal locations if something were to hit us pretty heavily,” said Kyla Fischer, a traffic operations section manager with Hillsborough County.
She says the need for these beacons became apparent after Hurricane Irma in 2017.
“We want to work towards something that's going to run endlessly,” Fischer said.
The POEBs run on solar power, meaning they will continuously receive power, even if the grid were out for a long period.
"They're not seen anywhere else in the country,” Fischer said. “It was developed and manufactured here in-house at Hillsborough County by our traffic signal and traffic engineering staff. I think that's remarkable."
“To know that we saw a problem, we came up with a solution, and we made it here, in-house with our materials that we have on hand, and it's going to probably catch on to other counties and states who may face something,” Fischer said. “And hopefully, it reduces the number of accidents, crashes, fatalities. That's ultimately what we're trying to achieve. We're pioneers.”
The POEBs cost between $20,000-$30,000 per intersection, according to Hillsborough County officials.
Right now, they’re concentrated in the more rural areas of the county, including southern and eastern Hillsborough County. They’re easier to install on mast arm locations, which are the large metal poles that stretch into the road. The county is now designing ways to hang the POEBs on wired traffic signals, which is a more delicate process.
Fischer says as more are installed, it can only be done in county roads intersecting other county roads, since that is fully under their jurisdiction.
She says other municipalities and even the Florida Department of Transportation have shown interest in using the emergency beacons themselves.
The POEBs aren’t the only piece of innovative technology that Hillsborough County is looking to install on its roadways. Fischer said they’re working on a pilot program that would put modems in traffic signal boxes at intersections.
The modem can connect with SMART cars and emergency crews to warn of hazards, pedestrians or bicyclists.
For first responder crews, the modems can also help change the pace of the traffic signals to give them a clearer road toward emergency situations.
Fischer said they’ve already tried the technology in one Hillsborough County corridor, and they’ll move toward a broader rollout following more design and implementation meetings.