Eye in the sky

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Print journalists will do anything to get a free ride in an plane. I am no exception.

Wedged into the narrow back seat of a Cessna 172, next to a radio transmitter, I'm getting a first-hand look at how WDBO-AM's "Iron Dave" Adams gathers and reports traffic information to thousands of motorists.

Iron Dave is a stocky, 38 year-old Oliver Platt look-alike with sideburns and a neatly trimmed goatee. I expected him to be completely insane. For starters even his bosses at Traffic Pulse Networks weren't sure of his last name when I asked. Everybody just calls him Iron Dave.

The man lives up to the name.

Twice a day, our city explodes into a syncopated frenzy of commuter mayhem, and Iron Dave is there to keep tabs on it all from the sky. During his three-hour shifts, he tosses himself to either side of the cramped cabin, his curly mullet-mane lashing about from under a red-and-blue ball cap. His eyes are always focused on the ground.

He wears an oversized set of pea-green headphones, with WDBO radio blaring in his left ear while the Traffic Pulse dispatcher talks to him in the right ear.

With the flip of a switch, he is live on the air, bellowing into a handset over the constant roar of the engine. As reports of new accidents come in, he yells out directions to his pilot, Gary Ermish.

After his morning flight, Iron Dave heads off to WHTQ-FM, where he records segments for his overnight classic rock shows. Sometimes he rehearses with his own rock group, The Allmost Brothers Band. Then he's back in the plane for the afternoon rush hour.

"That's why I'm Iron Dave," he grins. "It seems like I'm always on."

Iron Dave is the most prominent voice at the Traffic Pulse service, which provides the traffic data to seven local radio stations, as well as to WESH-TV Channel 2 and WKMG-TV Channel 6. But he is just one part of a company that is always searching for pile-ups, tie-ups, tanker spills and burning cars.

In an age of instant information, we sometimes forget where it's all coming from. Technology allows broadcasters access to all sorts of new gadgets, like the 63 web cameras that monitor I-4 from Volusia County to International Drive, but nothing beats actually being there.

At Traffic Pulse's local headquarters in Maitland, 25 employees rotate shifts and duties, including listening to a dozen emergency-service frequencies and scanning the Florida Highway Patrol website for signs of trouble. All the information is entered into a database that automatically generates three-dimensional maps for TV and interactive maps on the Traffic Pulse website, www.traffic.com.

During peak hours, Iron Dave confirms the incidents and gives the operation center an idea of how bad things look. When Dave spots a wreck a Traffic Pulse employee will jump into one of the company's Subaru Foresters to check out the specifics.

Like storm chasers, they seek out the worst places to be in the area. As an accident clears, or traffic congestion worsens, the drivers watch and update the office.

A day earlier I rode along with Traffic Pulse driver Donna Santopietro as she patrolled about 100 miles of roadways one afternoon. News of a head-on collision on Goldenrod Road came over the radio with a familiar warning: "Get as close as you can without putting yourself in jeopardy."

We found a perch at a gas station directly across from the wreckage. Santopietro diverted her eyes as paramedics lifted injured motorists into ambulances.

"This is the part I hate," she said, "I like to see fender-benders, women crying over their dented Lexuses. Not this."

She glanced back to see if they were finished.

The traffic report is a dry, obligatory component of local news. But accuracy counts. It is the ultimate in reactive reporting, telling drivers what other drivers are doing at any given time, so they can change course if necessary.

As mechanized as news systems may sometimes be, it's gratifying to know that the most critical details are noted by real people.

When the broken glass was swept from the intersection and a lane opened up, Santopietro called in an update. As the fire truck pulled away and a police officer arrived to direct cars around the remaining debris, she let dispatch know that she was ready to head back to the office.

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