They're watching you. On a 48-monitor video wall -- a stalker's dream -- the Metrolina Regional Transportation Management Center has the 67-mile belt and most of the Charlotte-area interstates under their surveillance. Two operators man the big board 24 hours a day and can zoom in with any of the 70-plus, 360-degree pan/180-degree tilt cameras.
From the dark room, the dispatchers can notify one of 20 Incident Management Assistance Patrol (IMAP) units and highway patrol, city police, fire department, Medic or Sheriff's Department -- depending on the severity of the incident.
Metrolina started in 1990 after a dump truck hit a family vehicle on I-77 by Brookshire Freeway, closing the interstate for 12 to 14 hours and bottling up traffic all the way to Columbia. In the course of a year, IMAP handles between 2,500 and 3,000 incidents a month, ranging from minor fender benders to major pile-ups.
They've seen it all. They've seen you pull over to the shoulder to get out and brawl with the passenger in your car. They've seen you break into a roadside vehicle. They've seen you weave drunkenly through the lanes.
Heath Holland, the Communications Supervisor at Metrolina, started as an IMAP driver in 1993 and worked the dangerous job for more than seven and a half years. He's picked up wagon wheels, sleeper couches and even life jackets (one summer working I-77, he counted 12 stray life jackets). Once, a reporter asked him what he's seen on the road. He answered, "Everything but the kitchen sink." A couple days later, he responded to a debris report; sure enough, a kitchen sink was blocking a highway lane. Other times, he's performed almost superhuman leaping acts, jumping over 6-foot walls and medians as other cars were barreling down on him.
In 1995, one of Heath's friends was working highway maintenance. On only his third day, he was picking up trash bags that inmates had left on the side of the road. When he stepped out of the truck, the wind from the traffic blew his hat off. Instinctively, he took one step to grab his hat and was instantly struck and killed by a car going 64 miles per hour. "One step in the wrong direction," Heath stated. "The human body cannot take a 70-mile-per-hour impact with a vehicle." Recently in Raleigh, a dispatcher was killed, and three years ago, a Charlotte IMAP worker had both his legs severed when an out-of-control tractor trailer slammed into an ambulance and pinned him in between.
Holland took the job as a supervisor, away from daily patrolling, because "it's only a matter of time," he says. "Every time we have a unit [worker] on an incident scene or out on the road, his next call could be his last. And that weighs on you, heavily."
"I hope people will understand what they're doing is a great service," says Transportation Public Information Officer Jen Maher. "It's very dangerous, very risky. I used to think they just give you a little gas to make it to the next exit or they put air in your tire or something like that. But they do so much more."