When there is a traffic accident on U.S. 278 in southern Beaufort County, the very first responders often don't set foot on the scene.
They're behind monitors at the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office, using the county's network of 85 traffic cameras to relay real-time information to the responders who do go to the scene, according to Lt. Chuck Runnion.
"If it is within camera view, my folks communicate directly to law enforcement, fire and EMS that are on the way," Runnion said. "It gives us a tremendous advantage."
Runnion is the operations officer leading the Sheriff's Office Traffic Management Center, an eight-person team created in 2010 that monitors the cameras during daytime hours, seven days a week. The Sheriff's Office allocates about $740,000 to operate the Traffic Management Center and maintain the cameras, according to Runnion and Sgt. Robin McIntosh. Most of the cameras were purchased with state grants and a former 1 percent sales tax for road improvements, Runnion said.
In all, the cameras cover much of U.S. 278, S.C. 170, U.S. 21, Bluffton Parkway and even exit 8 off Interstate 95 in Hardeeville.
That coverage along the county's main arteries gives the Sheriff's Office a head start in responding to traffic accidents and helps county engineers study traffic movements, said Runnion and county traffic engineer Colin Kinton.
For the Sheriff's Office, the cameras have been especially useful in responding to wrecks along U.S. 278 in recent weeks, Runnion said.
In the first few seconds after a wreck, Runnion's team zooms in on the scene to relay information to dispatch or a responding officer. The cameras also help the Traffic Management Center identify the best detours to avoid traffic congestion, he added.
"Nothing tells it better than video," he said. "The quicker we can give them a bird's-eye view, the better."
From there, the center can monitor the situation and send alerts to the public, either through the Nixle message system or on the nine blue alert signs that direct travelers to an AM radio station for traffic updates, Runnion said.
"In the field of intelligent traffic systems, providing more information to the public as far as how traffic is operating is the goal," Kinton said. "You want people to know what's going on out there so they can make informed decisions."
The county also posts feeds of the traffic cameras online for travelers to reference before they leave their homes or after they get an alert, Kinton and Runnion said.
The system is unique in South Carolina because it's the only one not owned and operated by the S.C. Department of Transportation, Runnion and Kinton said. That gives the county and Sheriff's Office more flexibility and speed in adjusting or repairing the cameras, they said.
The traffic-management team also has addressed the possible privacy concerns that stem from the system, Runnion said. The cameras do not record video and are live-feed only, Runnion said. The team is only designed to monitor, not hold and review footage, he added.
The public feeds posted online are placed on a delay of several seconds and can be suspended during a wreck, Runnion said.
For example, the live feed for the camera at Buck Island Road and U.S. 278 in Bluffton was suspended for much of the day in early June when several cars wrecked and a large truck overturned and crushed a car. One woman was killed and several drivers were seriously injured, so Runnion's team suspended the live feed while first-responders treated those involved.
"We try to be respectful," Runnion said. "It's traumatic enough for everyone involved there, and our job is to report on traffic and not sensationalize it."
The cameras have proven to be an important tool for emergency management and traffic engineers trying to better respond to and understand Beaufort County's most heavily traveled roads, Runnion and Kinton added.
The county might also try to extend its reach to farther corners of the area, such as northern parts of U.S. 21 and Gardens Corner, Runnion said.
Follow reporter Zach Murdock at twitter.com/IPBG_Zach.