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Opticom system gets green light

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Equipment will help clear intersections when emergency vehicles are approaching.

By April Wright, Reporter

A preemption device on traffic signals along Main Street, East Stuart Drive and Meadow Street in Galax would make intersections safer for police, fire engines, ambulances and other traffic when emergency personnel are responding.

The fire department has tried unsuccessfully for years to land a grant for the Opticom system, but now a pool of leftover highway funds will finally allow Galax to put the equipment in place.
Opticom is a traffic control system that provides a green light — or intersection right-of-way — to emergency vehicles.
Galax Police Department, Galax-Grayson EMS and Galax Volunteer Fire Department vehicles would be equipped with an emitter to send a signal to the receiver, which is mounted near the traffic signal.
This turns the light green for oncoming emergency vehicles approaching the signal, and other traffic coming from different directions will be locked on red, in order to clear the intersection. The signal would revolve in a normal cycle to stop traffic.
When vehicles are at an intersection at the Food City shopping center, for example, “there is nowhere for cars to pull off when they are stopped at a red light,” said Galax City Manager Keith Barker. “Emergency vehicles may have to sit in traffic behind cars stopped at the light. This will allow the intersection to clear.”
Barker said the emitters are designed to give off an infrared signal, from up to a couple thousand feet away, as emergency vehicles approach the receiver, providing enough time for the signal to clear traffic smoothly and the light to turn green for emergency vehicles.
Over the past few years, Galax Fire Chief David Hankley said the fire department had applied for a number of grants to fund the system, but the department was denied each time. Each traffic signal receiver costs nearly $10,000.
However, this project will be funded through the Virginia Department of Transportation's highway maintenance funds. When it came to making improvements to the intersection at Glendale Road/East Stuart Drive, near Subway restaurant, the city chose to go with the least expensive option. (Construction on that project will begin this year.)
About $1.3 million was left over to allow for other projects. This money will pay for improvements to traffic signals at Main and Washington streets and Main and Webster streets; upgrading to LED lights at several traffic signals in the city; and implementing the Opticom system.
A breakdown of costs for each project was not available.
Funding would equip 25 to 30 emergency vehicles and 17 intersections along Main Street, East Stuart Drive and Meadow Street with the Opticom system.
“This is going to provide a quicker response for emergency vehicles and make intersections safer,” said Barker.
Hankley said the Galax Volunteer Fire Department has been involved in two traffic accidents in the past 30 years. Both crashes occurred at intersections — one the fault of the fire truck driver and the other the fault of a citizen. No fatalities occurred in those accidents.
Hankley referred to a traffic fatality that occurred in Rocky Mount, in which the fire chief and another firefighter lost their lives in July 2009. Another citizen was injured.
“Had the device been there, I don't think this would have happened,” said Hankley.  “Traffic has always been a problem for us. Many times, when they hear the sirens, people don't know what to do or where to go. They just freeze.”
“We're excited about this, and the system should be installed within the next few months,” said Barker.