Opticom system gets green light in Galax

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New technology helps firefighters and rescue workers get through intersections quickly and safely.

By April Wright, Reporter

The Opticom system — devices on traffic signals that change lights to clear the way and make intersections safer for emergency traffic — have been installed at all intersections along East Stuart Drive in Galax, from the Main Street to Walmart.
Two preempting devices have also been installed at the Webster and Washington intersections on Main Street. Three more will be installed at Center, Grayson and Oldtown streets in January.
Opticom is a traffic control system that provides a green light — or intersection right-of-way — to emergency vehicles. Galax City Manger Keith Barker said the light works by first flashing a white light and then changing to a solid green light for emergency vehicles and a solid red to others.
“When the white flood light comes on, it not only lets emergency workers know that the device is working, but it lets other traffic know that the system is being activated and the light will change,” said Edwin Ward, engineer for the City of Galax.
Galax Police Department, Galax-Grayson EMS and Galax Volunteer Fire Department vehicles are 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.
City staff have been working on installing the system throughout the year.
“When the light is red and an emergency vehicle is coming through, drivers don’t know what to do,” said Ward. “That’s what the system is for — for emergency vehicles to pass through without fighting 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, Barker. This will allow the intersection to clear.
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.
Each traffic signal receiver costs nearly $10,000, but is being funded through the Virginia Department of Transportation’s highway maintenance funds. The city and fire department have worked for many years to find funding to pay for the system.
Funding would equip 25 to 30 emergency vehicles and 17 intersections along Main Street, East Stuart Drive and Meadow Street with the Opticom system.
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.