OCEAN CITY – A multi-department review of last month’s Route 50 Bridge malfunction took place at the Public Safety Building last Friday, and city officials and staff were in consensus the town’s variable message signs need to be more accessible in emergency situations and a better public-private partnership is required to speed up communication.
Shortly after 3 p.m. on Saturday, July 26, the Route 50 drawbridge got stuck in the up position while it was being closed following a routine opening. The malfunctioning bridge immediately caused heavy resort traffic on a busy and cloudy Saturday afternoon in late July to back up along Route 50 as well as Routes 589, 90, 113 and 54 as motorists attempted to find alternative routes into Ocean City, essentially causing gridlock across much of northern Worcester County and lower Sussex County.
“The bridge was inspected by State Highway that Friday in anticipation of the White Marlin Open. Everything was greased up and looked at. This event was one of the machinery’s support beams about a 54-inch beam that had in engineering term section loss, which is a nice way of saying rust that twisted and snapped, and caused a failure that no one anticipated, including State Highway,” Emergency Services Director Joe Theobald said.
The bridge remained stuck in the open position for about five hours until State Highway Administration’s (SHA) private-sector engineering firm Covington, which routinely maintains and inspects the bridge, could get on scene to analyze the problem. In an otherwise luckless situation, the chief engineer was on vacation in Ocean City and was fishing offshore before he was brought in to being assessing the problem with the bridge.
Around 8 p.m., with the traffic backups now spiraling in every direction in and around the resort area, the decision was made to hand-crank the broken span into the closed position to begin allowing vehicles to access the bridge in and out of the resort.
“Fortunately we were able to get the bridge seated again. It didn’t look like that in the beginning. The first couple of hours it looked like it was going to stay open until the process really started to get rolling. We were talking to the police and fire chief and the command staff that they better look at it as being a long-term operation, overnight, up to 24 hours until they can get it resolved,” Theobald said.
At 10 p.m., the bridge was hand-cranked to the open position again to allow boats caught on the south side of the span to get back into their marinas and ports. Anecdotally, some fishing boats and larger vessels were forced to put in at marinas south of the bridge and in West Ocean City and were brought back on Sunday when the bridge was operational again.
“At no point during the initial call or the 24-hour period do we believe that any of our residents or visitors was put in any kind of situation that we could not handle,” Fire Chief Chris Larmore said. “Immediately our chiefs were notified. All were asked to separately identify our priorities both for a short term and over a 24-hour period … I can say without any doubt what so ever the Town of Ocean City in regards to public safety was more than covered during this incident and we were prepared to take it out as long and as far as we would have to.”
Police Chief Ross Buzzuro reported communication was key within his department.
“For us, obviously working with the traffic issue through collaborations with Lt. Mark Pacini running the event so to speak and Capt. Kirstein running town operations from a control standpoint, we didn’t miss a beat,” Buzzuro said. “Traffic was snarled but as far as the operation of town, running calls for service … constant communication and trying to figure out how to best handle it we did the best job we could and in the end it worked out pretty well under the circumstances.”
Buzzuro concluded in retrospect the police department is looking to the placement of signage in and surrounding the town to better inform the public.
“It is important to get the right information out to people, and I know everybody wants as much information as possible,” said Theobald, who has been discussing with Communications Manager Jessica Waters on how to enhance messaging in emergency situations.
According to Waters, on Sept. 3 a Crisis Communications Team meeting will be held when city staff and the business community will gather to discuss how the private sector can become more involved in emergency situations, such as posting information on their own variable message signs.
“One of the things that is not easy for us to access is the signs that are owned by the city; the signs on the Boardwalk, the sign at the convention center, the tennis center and the Park and Ride are actually not easily accessible to us,” Waters said.
Waters explained the only person who can access the computer to post messages on the convention center, tennis center and Park and Ride signs is a convention center employee, Sharon Bradford.
“For the most part she either has to be in Ocean City or has to be in front of her computer at home, and at this time on a Saturday in the middle of summer we really lucked out that she happened to be in Ocean City,” Waters said. “In an instance like this, it is just not easy and we need to figure out how to make that process easier; how to make it accessible by the people that are working 24/7.”
Waters recommended the Emergency Services Department having access to the town’s signs.
“We learn something from every event and now we know this is something that we need to prioritize, so that we can have that access and it can be something that is done in a timely manner,” Mayor Rick Meehan said.
Theobald added the town should better educate the public of the town’s FM radio station that went live in July.
“We have a FM radio station that was utilized but we have to educate the public collectively that we have that, formally unveil it so they know when they come into town and tune to 99.5 they are going to get the same messaging that they would get in text, or read on a sign. We have many platforms, we just have to figure out what is the best way to do it,” Theobald said.