TAMPA — A five-person team sits quietly in a large, open room. They're staring intently at a wall filled with large screens, split to show 60 different camera feeds.
Some people glance at smaller computer monitors that display the same feeds. There's not much workplace chatter — you have to be focused to be good at this.
Some wear headsets and scan the screens, looking for signs of trouble. The whole thing is reminiscent of NASA's control room.
The team's mission is simple: Its members serve as the unseen guardians of our interstate system.
In 2006, the Florida Department of Transportation introduced electronic highway signs statewide. They flash traffic information and warnings, along with crucial Silver and Amber Alerts.
The signs hang overhead as cars whiz underneath. Thousands see the messages every day. If you've driven on an interstate you've likely glanced up at one.
So who controls the signs?
That's where the team of camera watchers — FDOT calls them operators — comes in.
Two hundred cameras are perched on poles along Interstate 275, Interstate 75 and Interstate 4 in Hillsborough, Pinellas and parts of Pasco and Polk counties. The cameras feed a live stream to the operators, who work at the DOT's regional communication center on N McKinley Drive. The cameras do not store any footage.
When there's a crash that closes a lane, an operator will see the traffic jam and flash a delay message on the overhead signs. And if a car breaks down on the side of the road, an operator will dispatch a DOT Road Ranger.
The center is staffed around the clock.
"Traffic accidents don't seem to stop," said Romona Burke, manager of the center's intelligent transportation systems.
And on holidays?
"Someone's missing out on that turkey dinner, I'm afraid," she said.
During rush-hour traffic, four or five people sit in front of the screens and scan the cameras. During non-peak times, like late at night, two people staff the center. Salaries start at about $24,000 a year, according to DOT spokesperson David Botello
This is a job with no daydreaming or dozing — the results could be disastrous.
For example, wrong-way drivers. If an operators spot someone driving the wrong way on the highway, they alert authorities and change all nearby signs to flash a message urging drivers to use extreme caution.
And if a busy stretch of interstate ever needs to be completely shut down — heaven forbid, Burke said — the signs would let drivers know about that, too.
But on slower days, operators send out messages about road closures and blocked lanes. They don't control the traffic travel times that flash on highway signs — those are determined automatically thanks to an algorithm that measures how fast traffic is moving.
Burke said operators are constantly on the lookout for any deviance from the normal traffic flow. They scan the cameras regularly, panning and zooming if they need to look at something up close.
Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines
Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Before the signs, Burke said, people listened to the radio to get up-to-date traffic information.
Now, people can call in erratic driving or a bad crash to the Florida Highway Patrol, which operates out of the same building as the center. FHP lets the team know if a message needs to be sent out to the public.
Charlie Keasler, who has worked at the traffic management center for seven years, said sending out the messages has become second nature. He is an assistant manager but still occasionally works operator shifts.
"We're constantly watching that wall," he said.
Traffic is usually at its worst Monday mornings and Friday afternoons, he said.
Keasler said he drives more carefully when he's not at work thanks to his job. He regularly sees drivers determined to get a look at an accident as they drive by.
"That's dangerous," he said. "People misjudge how good their driving skills are."
The operators come from a wide range of backgrounds — there are former police dispatchers and 911 operators — and have to be prepared to see trauma on the screens.
"There are some things that are not pleasant," Burke said.
Cameras line the Sunshine Skyway bridge and suicide attempts have been shown as they're happening. In the case of something like that, they immediately radio for help.
Operators start to adapt.
"We try not to zoom up real close on stuff that might be traumatic," she said.
Keasler said he has seen bad accidents during his time. But for the most part, he said, his job consists of watching and looking for something amiss.
"You basically have to go look for trouble," he said. "And you find it."
Contact Ayana Stewart at email@example.com or (727) 445-4153. Follow @AyanaStewart.