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As hurricane season approaches, red-light beacons could free up resources during power outages

Thanks to solar power, intersections can automatically become four-way stops.

TAMPA, Fla. — Hurricane season is almost here, and Hillsborough County is doing what it can to prepare for any storms that head our way.

Part of that includes an innovative idea that sprung from hurricane Irma.

It’s a traffic signal system designed to allow first responders to spend more time saving lives and less time directing traffic in the event of widespread power outages. Eventually, Hillsborough County hopes to have the solar-powered beacon lights installed at all 316 of the intersections it manages.

“It was a big wake-up call that led us to doing a damage assessment app,” said Kyla Fisher with Hillsborough County’s Traffic Operations department.

Fischer says Hurricane Irma inspired the idea after knocking out power across an area of more than 900 square miles.

That left local police, deputies and others trying to direct traffic at dozens of intersections when they could’ve been tending to other storm-related emergencies.

“That’s why these solar-powered emergency beacons were put in place so that they can respond to other things instead of going to intersections controlling traffic,” Fischer said.

The innovative beacon system had never been used any place else, and the equipment needed was already available, including the same solar panels which are used to power school zone signals throughout the county.

So far, Hillsborough is about halfway through its list.

The idea is simple. When the power goes out, the solar panels kick in. The red lights start to flash, turning the intersection into a four-way stop.

Lots of people who work and live around where the beacons have been installed say they like the idea.

Many had seen them before but had no idea what they were.

“I think it’s very cool, it’s very helpful. Hopefully, we don’t have a hurricane season. But if we do, it’ll be very helpful so emergency officials can go help others who are in need who are in danger and go rescue them,” said Brianna Pugh, stopped at one of the intersections. “And people who are in the streets can still be safe.”

Another driver, Laura Odom also liked the idea since people don’t always know what to do at a darkened intersection.

“I think it will definitely — it will like — avoid a lot of chaos, you know what I’m saying? A lot of panic,” said Odom.

Since 2019, the county has been installing the solar-powered beacon system at key intersections. Each project costs about $20,000. Driver Marco Ortega, who seen the beacons, but was never quite sure what they were – thinks it’s money well spent.

“You know it should make life a lot easier for everybody,” said Ortega, “And just avoid the cost of having people out here. Make it safer overall.”

Hillsborough hasn’t set a target date for competition but says all 316 intersections should be re-fitted within the next year or so.

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