The Magic People Behind the System
The Highway Hotline is used by millions every year. It’s the saving grace before hitting the road to the cabin, mom’s house for Thanksgiving or the Roughriders home game.
But how does the information get there and get updated? Is it magic?
The short answer is no, it’s not magic. But there are magical people like Brayden Park behind the scenes. Park has worked for the Ministry of Highways for the last four years. He says it’s the dedicated Highway Hotline team that keeps him with the ministry. He and fellow staff are committed to making timely updates throughout their busy 12-hour shifts. “We are lucky to have individuals on staff that have high levels of accountability and resiliency, as we are a 24/7 service,” says Park.
Hotline staff update road conditions, monitor hazards and alert media when bad weather is forecast. They also co-ordinate with RCMP after an accident.
The men and women who work in the field are also instrumental to the hotline. They provide information on road conditions, accidents and hazards to hotline staff. Because hotline staff are all based in Regina, ministry equipment operators, supervisors and district operations managers phoning in with information is critical for the hotline to function. It’s those calls and emails that allow the hotline to be updated with timely information for drivers.
As Park relies on people all over the province, every time he gets a call, he’s building a relationship with another equipment operator, supervisor or RCMP officer. “If I go to Radisson, La Loche, Swift Current, I know somebody in that area that wants to get together,” Park says. “So really, our hotline family is spread all over the province.”
The staff do it because it keeps everyone informed and safe.
On an average day, Park could see 100 inquiries come through his work station. On a really busy day, the two-person team receives upwards of 350.
“You have to be laser-focused, because you’re getting a call about every 40 seconds. So you have to make sure you’ve noted that you’ve taken a call and make sure you’ve updated the system properly. If one of those goes wrong, then there’s gonna be problems.”
So what happens when that storm ends or that incident is over?
“It’s kind of a feeling of relief, because it’s a moment to collect our thoughts, a moment to calm down from the adrenaline from dealing with so many things at one time. It almost feels weird because we’re just so used to it. It almost seems natural to grab the phone so quick, pick it up and make my marks, put it online and move to the next thing.”
Park has gained many skills while working for the hotline. Likely the most unique is an encyclopedic knowledge of Saskatchewan’s road network.
“I pretty much have a map of the province engrained in my brain. I know where every section of highway is. When somebody asks ‘Well, where is this?’ I can see it already in my head,” Park says.
On top of the manual work that goes into updating the hotline, there’s also a lot of technology involved. In previous years, if Park received a call for a specific section of highway, he would have to flip through a book of maps to find a road. But now, in the hotline room, there are TV monitors that constantly broadcast feeds from cameras stationed around the province. This is a big time saver and takes stress off hotline staff.
This technology allows staff to see what’s happening in the field without having to be there physically. And it allows staff to see what’s happening in real time.
“The technology makes it really convenient for updating. It also ensures that the flow of information isn’t impeded at all.”
For example, there are cameras installed on the Regina Bypass that allow hotline staff to monitor activity and road conditions. These cameras detect the volume of vehicles and average speed on the bypass every five minutes.
“When the average speed slows down, it will give us an alert so we can check it out and see if there’s something wrong. Then we can notify the bypass if there’s an accident, issues with lights or debris on the road.”
The most important thing for the hotline is to make sure updates are timely and accurate. A mixture of hotline staff, ministry field staff and technology makes it happen.
Of course, the ministry is always looking to improve the timeliness and accuracy of information. Most recently, a pilot project has been in the works that will allow for automatic vehicle location on some snow plows in the ministry’s fleet. If this pilot is successful, it would offer the ministry the potential to live track its snow plows across the province. The ministry is also working on setting up more highway cameras, which would streamline information to the public.
“If we can take preventative measures so the people can be careful, we’ll need to rely less and less on our public safety services,” says Park.
“We’re here to serve the people and make sure that everyone gets home safe.”
Know before you go. Check the Highway Hotline.