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Archive for Sunday, November 26, 1995

KEEPING TABS ON THE TURNPIKE

November 26, 1995

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— KTA dispatchers have some of the most sophisticated equipment in the state for monitoring the 236-mile turnpike.

You might wonder how only one or two people per shift could keep tabs on 236.643 miles of highway stretching from the Oklahoma-Kansas border to Kansas City.

But with decades of experience and some of the most sophisticated computer equipment in the region, they've got the Kansas Turnpike covered.

Meet the men and women who keep watch on everything from road surface temperatures and weather forecasts to the locations of patrol officers and possible wanted felons cruising the road: Kansas Turnpike Authority dispatchers.

From the KTA's headquarters located just off the Kellogg Street exit here, one or two officers keep tabs on those aspects and more along the entire stretch of the road.

"Being an interstate highway, you've got all kinds of people going through this road," said Mike McCulley, one of three men and five women who dispatch for the turnpike.

On a recent Friday night, McCulley and partner Dennis Stewart provided a glimpse of an average weekend night from inside the dispatcher control center.

High-tech tools

KTA dispatchers and patrol officers work under authority of the Kansas Highway Patrol.

Five to 10 officers patrol the turnpike at a given time.

In addition to keeping tabs on them, the dispatchers also are in frequent contact with toll booth operators at 20 interchanges and convenience store employees at six service areas.

"A lot of what we do is service-oriented," Stewart said. "If someone sees a car broken down or an accident, usually the first person they see is a toll booth operator or someone at a service area.

"People are pretty good about letting us know about problems."

The dispatchers also use computer programs that allow them to call up weather data at various points along the road. That's possible because temperature sensors and other equipment has been built into the road and alongside it.

In a few seconds, dispatchers can call up a particular area, see a map of it, and find out the road surface temperature, air temperature, wind speed and direction, wind chill factor, humidity, dew point and a forecast for the specific location.

KTA maintenance employees also can tap into the same database from home.

"The maintenance guys can look at this same thing from home and if it looks like we're going to have ice and snow, they can be out there before it happens," Stewart said.

In addition, dispatchers can call up another database containing telephone numbers and the names of nearby local agencies for specific problems.

For example, if an injury accident occurred near milepost 202, the West Lawrence interchange, dispatchers in Wichita can punch in the milepost number and get a listing of the closest ambulance, helicopter, firefighter, hospital and hazardous materials services.

The numbers can then be automatically dialed with a few more clicks of a mouse. It's all done at the cost of a local call, thanks to a network of KTA microwave telephone relays along the road.

"We're kind of the envy of other highway patrols" because of the equipment, said KTA dispatcher Dotti Rankin.

Changing times

Despite the sophisticated equipment, no computer can prevent accidents and crime from occurring along the turnpike.

As of mid-November, about 1,100 accidents had occurred along the road this year. But many of those were minor, dispatchers said.

The most recent fatality occurred Aug. 5, when a woman died in a car crash near Wichita. It was the seventh fatality of the year.

"You have bad years, and you have good years" in the number of accidents, McCulley said. "It just depends on how much ice and snow you have."

"The first (storm) always seems to be the worst," Stewart said. He worked the night of Nov. 10, when snow and ice significantly dusted a large area of the road for the first time this year.

Of more than 80 reported accidents that night, "there were 47 that actually panned out."

Explaining the difference, Stewart said, "Sometimes we get calls on the same accident. It could be another accident at the same location. We can't afford to take that chance," he said.

The busiest nights occur during bad weather, or if there has been a shooting. Then dispatchers are inundated with calls from the media, travelers and officers.

But on this Friday night, activity is relatively slow -- a motorist had struck a deer, another didn't have enough money to pay the toll.

"We have quite a few who either refuse to pay or don't have enough money to pay when they get off," said patrol Sgt. John Walters.

In those cases, motorists will be asked to pull over near the toll booth and wait for a patrol officer, who will help find a way for the driver to pay, Walters said.

The toll booths also serve as gates for catching criminals.

"You'd be surprised how many people will sit there and wait for an officer because they can't pay the toll, and it turns out they're driving a stolen vehicle or they're wanted," Walters said.

Toll booth operators also will call dispatchers if they believe a motorist is intoxicated.

Voices of experience

The best part of a dispatcher's job is helping people, they said.

"When you know you're able to help somebody out in a bad situation, that's the best thing," Stewart said.

Their pet peeves?

"People who can't change their own tires," McCulley said.

"When they run out of gas a mile after the service station," Stewart said.

McCulley, an eight-year KTA dispatcher veteran, is considered the "low man on the totem poll." He worked eight years with the Abilene Police Department before joining the KTA.

Stewart, a KTA dispatcher 17 years, previously worked five years for the Butler County sheriff's office.

"We probably have 120 years experience between all the dispatchers," said Rankin, who has 10.

"We very seldom lose people," Stewart said.

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