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Franklin ambulance garage to hold green-go power over nearby stoplight

Ever wanted a magic button you could press to make the stoplight turn green? Macon County Emergency Medical Services will soon hold that power for one stoplight at an intersection near its ambulance garage in Franklin.

The EMS station has gotten approval from state highway officials to control the stoplight beside Holly Springs Plaza to give ambulances quicker, safer passage through the intersection.

Implementation should be complete in the coming month. Once in place, the button will allow emergency responders leaving the EMS to trip a switch that will control the traffic light before hopping in the ambulances.

If the light is red, the switch will make it turn green more rapidly; and if the light is already green, the switch will hold the go light to give the medical personnel a chance to speed onto U.S. 441 and toward the source of the emergency.

While the feature may sound like something out of the remake of the movie “The Italian Job,” in which thieves take over control of traffic lights in Los Angeles to get away with stolen goods, the real-life button could be used to shave precious seconds off a wait at the red light.

On average, the stoplight stays red between 30 seconds and a minute. But, the delay can be even longer if one of the county’s medical responders leave from the station to find a long line of cars between them and the light.

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Although an extra minute or two might not seem like a lot of time to a Sunday grocery shopper at the neighboring Ingles, or a worker on lunch break at the nearby Kentucky Fried Chicken, that extra time is a source of concern for medical staff or the person having a heart attack who is waiting for them to arrive.

“It seems like a long time when you’re sitting there,” said David Key, EMS director for the county. “In the course of an ambulance transport, a minute and a half can make a difference.”

Macon County EMS has three stations, one in Nantahala, one in Highlands and the third base serving Franklin at the shopping center along U.S. 441. The Franklin station alone runs about 5,000 calls per year; about half of those involve an ambulance passing through the stoplight; and about 1,000 of those calls are time-sensitive emergencies.

But, until recently, Key and his EMS staff has been waiting at a red light of their own. Despite seeking approval for the light-controlling switch beginning two years ago, the N.C. Department of Transportation just now gave them the green.

And it wasn’t a cheap endeavor: the planning, design and approval cost the county about $17,000 — which is more than the $12,000 the county will have to fork over to install the emergency apparatus.

At the most recent county commissioner meeting, newly elected Commissioner Paul Higdon looked outwardly upset when he was informed the planning process cost more than the installation will. Yet, commissioners moved ahead to approve funds for the new device.

“To get DOT approval, you have quite a few things to do,” said County Manager Jack Horton in reference to the two-year process.

And during the course of those two years, the Walmart located near the EMS station, which was also to blame for a large amount of the emergency-delaying traffic, moved to a new location, taking some of the other stores in the shopping plaza with it. Now, traffic is slow, almost non-existent, said Key.

But he anticipates the day when new businesses move into the vacant store fronts left in the wake of Walmart’s move and the traffic picks up again. He also understands why it took so long to get approval.

“DOT was hesitant,” said Key. “They were very cautious about setting a precedent.”

And maybe for good reason. If not properly researched and designed, stoplight control switches can increase the number of accidents and cause undue delay, said District 14 Deputy Traffic Engineer Roger Ayers.

“We didn’t really feel it would really benefit them,” said Ayers.

Thus, the project was approved but without any funding assistance from the state.

Overall, such devices are rare. Ayers said only five or six stoplight-controlling switches exist in the 10 westernmost counties in North Carolina. One of them controls the intersection on the four-lane highway in front of the fire station in Clyde. Another has been in place in Brevard for 20 or so years.

If used properly the switches shouldn’t pose a problem and can be effective time-savers for emergency responders, Ayers said. But, it comes at a cost.

The switch in Franklin could hold up traffic on U.S. 441, a major thoroughfare between Georgia and North Carolina, for two to three minutes, if a line of vehicles in front of the ambulance must clear through the extended green light, Ayers said.

During the high tourism season, those delays could be extended.

“In the summertime, with a lot of traffic, it could be even worse,” he said.

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