"There are always some dissatisfied people, so it is important to try and steer the conversation in a constructive direction"
They are fighting an invisible battle to insure safety on our road. They are watching over our security 24 hours a day; their eyes are the dozens of cameras all along the highway. We can hear them, but we can never see them. They are the operators of the Automated Traffic Control System. Svetlana Pozharova, a UTS operator on the M4 Don Highway, tells us what it feels like to be on the other side of the screen, whether we can trust GPS devices and what the cameras are really used for on the roads.
Help on the line
What does the UTS traffic control center do?
- Our main task is to help road users who have got into a difficult or dangerous situation. In such case the operator activate safety message on variable message signs to inform the other drivers and call the emergency services and dispatch a traffic safety inspector to help the driver. Our job also includes answering some questions from drivers.
- Which highway section are you responsible for? What is your typical workday?
- I'm responsible for the section 544-633 km of the M4 Don Highway. When you turn up for your shift, you get a detailed description of all the incidents and situations that the previous shift had to deal with. Sometimes we cannot speed up the processing of accidents or the recovery of heavy machinery, so an event will often still be in progress when your shift ends, and you will need to brief the next shift operator on what's going on and what actions have already been taken.
During the day, we take incoming calls from road users and different services, if necessary activate VMS and provide help. The conversation pattern is pretty standard: you find out where the road user is located on the highway and what has happened. The operator has many monitors in front of them, each showing the situation on the specific road site that they are responsible for; sometimes this helps to find the vehicle faster. Then we pass all this information on to a traffic safety inspector who then goes to help the road user on the scene.
- Where do you learn how to deal with customers? Do you have to take some training before you start the job?
- Of course, all operators complete a two-week training at the company. This is a hands-on training where you are taught how to operate ATCS cameras and the variable message signs at your site, and how to export video footage for the traffic police. In addition, we work through the standard road user questions and how to answer them; we learn how to conduct a conversation, how to answer user questions and how to handle aggressive customers. Our manual also comes with instructions on what we may need during our work.
- What happens if there is a major traffic accident? Who takes the decision to call the emergency services or take specific actions for handling the response and warning other drivers?
There are several scenarios that can play out. One possibility is that a traffic safety inspector discovers an accident and its victim or victims while performing a routine inspection of the section. Another possible situation is when a driver calls us on our emergency number (*2044 on the M4 Don Highway) and explains where he is. And the final third scenario is when we find the location of the accident using the camera feeds. In the latter two cases we call a traffic safety inspector and dispatch them to the scene. Their job is to check the state of the victims and decide whether additional emergency services need to be called to the scene. If they conclude that the assistance of other emergency services (ambulance, fire protection, police, EMERCOM and so on) is needed, then we call them.
Meanwhile, the operator has to notify other drivers about the situation. To do this, we display an appropriate message on the relevant variable message signs. For example, "Caution! Roadworks Ahead".
We also compile a detailed report on the situation. This is very important: we log all the actions that were taken minute-by-minute from the time we learned about the incident, called the traffic safety inspector and other services, and until the time traffic resumed as normal at the highway site where the accident took place. This report, complete with photographs, is submitted to the company’s management. If an incident is still in progress by the time we finish our shift, we file the report with a note saying that it's still in progress and more details will be forthcoming. When the next operator starts his/her shift, one has access to the latest information.
A hard task: finding the road user
- What have been the strangest situations you've had to deal with in your work?
- We once failed to find a driver. Seriously. Nothing bad happened, but we always try to make sure that a traffic safety inspector gets to the scene as fast as possible. The absurdity of the situation stemmed from the fact that when the driver called us, he reported wrong location, in fact he was somewhere else entirely, 40 km from the location he had reported. Sometimes these kinds of mistakes happen because the GPS is not working properly, while other times this happens because ordinary people and professionals can often perceive distance in very different ways.
- What is the most difficult thing about your job?
This may sound strange, but for me it's talking to people. UTS provides services on toll highways, and this tends to provoke a whole range of emotional responses from people. Some people understand that our main job is to ensure safety, but others don't. There are always some dissatisfied people, so it is important to try and defuse any negativity and steer the conversation in a constructive direction.
In my experience, it is easier to talk to road users by phone: when you're talking face-to-face, there is always the chance that they will transfer all their negativity onto you, even if you are trying to help, just because you happen to be there.
- Why did you choose to work for UTS?
- Firstly, I enjoy working as an operator and helping people. It's hard, but the job has meaning, you know why you are doing it. UTS was a deliberate choice: I got a lot of recommendations about it, and I carefully studied employee feedback, including from former employees. I now understand that I made the right choice.
- Do you notice the effect of your work? Have people come to trust this type of safety system more?
- I've been with this company for three years now. There have been some really significant changes during this period. The volume of road traffic has increased and, therefore, the number of calls we get have gone up enormously. To be precise, it has more than tripled. For example, we received 192 calls in March 2016 and 625 in March 2019. Our drivers are now much better informed and they even manage to help each other (laughing). There have been situations when passing drivers stop and help those in trouble by telling them about the emergency numbers and where they can call from.
Going through the motions
- Do you record the calls you get on the hot line? Why do you do this?
- Of course, all calls are recorded. First and foremost this is for security reasons, our security and that of our customers. Even though I've never had to use them in my work, I think recording all calls is the right thing to do.
- How many cameras do you control at your highway site?
- On the M4 Don Highway section 544-633 km, we have 62 CCTV cameras that monitor the situation on the road. Specifically, each sign gantry (there are ten of them) has two cameras facing opposite directions; then there are three more cameras on each mast (14 in total), two of which have fixed positions and the rest we can control by panning and focusing on specific areas.
- What are the cameras for?
- Well, a lot of people think that they are speed cameras that report speeding vehicles to the police. But that's not the case. Catching speeding drivers is the responsibility of the traffic police. Our cameras are only needed for safety purposes. The operators use them to monitor the situation on the road and dispatch traffic safety inspectors if necessary, or place an order to the road maintenance service if they notice a pothole or some other kind of damage on the road pavement.