- Associated Press - Sunday, March 26, 2017

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - Reina Wilson works in a fish bowl.

Not the kind that involves underwater windmills and colorful fish.

This one overflows with television monitors and computer screens and seeks to keep motorists moving along.

Wilson works as a traffic specialist for the Oklahoma Department of Transportation in what amounts to the agency’s version of mission control. At her glass-walled workspace inside a nondescript state office building not far from the Capitol there are no personal effects. No pictures of loved ones or corny motivational cat posters. It’s all business in the snug, brightly lit room ODOT employees have christened the “fish bowl.”

There, Wilson uses 18-wall mounted monitors to follow television news reports and to keep an eye on the images streamed from 258 highway cameras that ODOT operates across the state. She can also alter the angle of those cameras to get a better view.



Using that and other information, Wilson crafts the words that appear on the state’s 68 electronic message boards, everything from missing person alerts to traffic advisories.

Most of the state’s electronic message boards are concentrated in urban areas, with 27 in the Oklahoma City metro, and 20 in Tulsa. But they also can be found in areas as remote as Boise City.

The signs are positioned over highways and cost about $250,000 to purchase and install, The Oklahoman (https://bit.ly/2nc0691 ) reported. They require little maintenance and all can be monitored at the Fish Bowl or on ODOT laptops from an employee’s home. They’ve been around since the turn of the century, but have been more widely employed in recent years.

“They are not cheap,” ODOT spokeswoman Terri Angier said. “Prior to 2006 we had so little funding, we couldn’t maintain them let alone have new ones. If you’re going to have to cut something it’s going to be icing on the cake. And these were icing on the cake.”

Angier said funding began to improve in 2006 and that’s when the signs began to become more widely used. They are used for Amber Alerts (missing or abducted children) and Silver Alerts (missing seniors). The Department of Public Safety also can update the signs at any time.

In addition to traffic reports and alerts, the signs also are used to make the public aware of wildfires that might affect road conditions and in some instances, winter weather. ODOT also uses them for their Workzone Wednesday program, which is aimed at raising awareness among the public about work zones on public roadways.

The latter is usually themed around some high-profile event. Most recently it was the Oscars. This is serious business for ODOT. Every few months, staff gathers to brainstorm clever messages.

“We use what we think might catch people’s attention,” Angier said. “The whole idea is not to entertain them but get them to think about the message. With the Oscars, that’s something we wanted to tie in.”

One message read, “The Oscar goes to safe drivers.”

In another instance, ODOT used the changing season to highlight a safety message on the electronic signs.

“Orange and yellow aren’t just fall colors’” read one, meaning you need to slow down in a work zone, Angier said.

Messages are limited in length and must comply with federal standards. Angier said ODOT regularly receives suggestions from the public but often can’t consider them because they don’t comply.

“The standards are very detailed,” Angier said. “They can’t be more than three lines. They have to have this many characters. When we first began, people were calling to ask if they could pay for birthday messages to be put on them and obviously we can’t do that.”

Beyond making people aware of ongoing road construction, the signs can also be used to provide estimates for transit time over a particular stretch of road. Those estimates are provided by a vendor and uploaded to the signs continuously during the morning and afternoon rush hours. They were introduced first in Oklahoma City in 2014 and Tulsa in 2015.

“There’s nothing like being a driver sitting in traffic that’s stopped and not knowing what’s ahead,” Angier said. “This gives a driver the information they need so they don’t have to sit in traffic. It allows them to make a conscious decision to get off the highway and take another route and it’s been very popular with people.”

But ODOT takes care not to use them too much.

“We don’t want to saturate,” Angier said. “If you put one up every day or overuse them, they just become part of the background and people begin to disregard them. We want them to be off sometimes. That just makes them more effective when they are on.”

Wilson has heard it all when it comes to questions about the signs and life in the Fish Bowl. During a round of heavy rains that produced flooding she was off work but inundated with calls on her cellphone. It’s all part of the job.

“I had friends wondering what was the best way to get from one point to another,” she said. “Whenever someone finds out I work for ODOT, they always have a million questions about what we do which is great. I like that people are interested.”

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Information from: The Oklahoman, https://www.newsok.com

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