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Superior explores safer intersections during emergencies

The city's public works, police and fire departments are considering options to preempt traffic signals when emergency vehicles approach.

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SUPERIOR — Officials are exploring the option to disrupt traffic flows when emergency vehicles are responding to crises in the city.

The city’s public works director, Todd Janigo, is working with Fire Chief Scott Gordon and Police Chief Nicholas Alexander to explore the city’s options.

Gordon presented what they’ve learned so far to the Superior Public Safety Committee on Thursday, Feb. 24.

All emergency vehicles in Superior would be able to disrupt the city's 21 traffic signals to clear intersections when responding to an emergency.

“What that means is when a police truck or fire truck approaches that signal, they capture the signal and hold it until they pass through it,” Gordon said. “It’s a huge advantage for police and fire, as you can possibly imagine.”

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Emergency vehicle preemption interrupts normal traffic signal timing to provide a green light to approaching emergency vehicles so they can pass through intersections to get to emergencies safely.

Gordon said nine of the traffic signals in the city are already equipped with the necessary hardware. Bringing the remaining signals up to par and purchasing the required software is estimated at $167,000.

“I think we, the city of Superior, are behind the curve on that,” Gordon said.

The only way a light may not turn green or stay green indicates that emergency vehicles are approaching the intersection perpendicular to the emergency vehicles.

“It would almost guarantee that we never both come into an intersection expecting it because the first time ever we would know why the light is not turning green for us,” Gordon said.

He said a preemption system would reduce the city’s liability.

“It’s not too often we can put a dollar amount on a risk management tool,” Gordon said.

Superior City Council President Tylor Elm asked if there were statistics available that would show crashes are reduced with a preemption system.

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"We’ve never operated in a system that has preemption,” Gordon said. “Duluth has preemption. I talked to the chief in Duluth, and he couldn’t believe that we didn’t.”

Councilor Robert Pierce said implementing such a system should be a no-brainer.

“I get budgets and money, but this would improve citizens lives and safety,” Pierce said.

Councilor Nicholas Ledin said he experienced what a preemption system does while driving home from work through Proctor. While he had the green light as an emergency vehicle approached the intersection, he saw a white flashing light and the signal in his direction turned red almost immediately.

Currently, the project isn’t funded, but Gordon said it could be included in the 2023 capital improvement budget if councilors approve implementing a preemption system.

Pierce said the city council did not allocate $500,000 when it approved the budget for local and state recovery fund dollars allocated under the American Rescue Plan Act. That money could be used as a potential source to fund the system.

The committee took no action on the proposal but plans to discuss it further as exploration of emergency vehicle preemption continues.

Shelley Nelson is a reporter with the Duluth Media Group since 1997, and has covered Superior and Douglas County communities and government for the Duluth News Tribune from 1999 to 2006, and the Superior Telegram since 2006. Contact her at 715-395-5022 or snelson@superiortelegram.com.
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As reported by Douglas County Circuit Court.