APTA | Passenger Transport
January 4, 2010

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VTA’s Commitment to Mutual Aid
BY LINH HOANG, Public Relations Supervisor, Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, San Jose, CA

The term mutual aid refers to county and local governmental agencies across the nation that assist one other during emergencies. The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) is one of Santa Clara County’s first responders and, as the region’s transportation provider, provides mutual aid.

Almost as important to VTA as actually providing mutual aid is ensuring that its stakeholders know that doing so is one of its primary duties. VTA understands the need to “tell its story” by informing the communities and populations it serves of the role it plays during emergency situations.

For VTA, this commitment entails not only meeting expectations, but often exceeding what is expected. This effort is challenging under normal circumstances, but even more so when dealing with a limited operations staff. Yet, despite these limitations, VTA continues to provide assistance when warranted.

“We are a resource. People can rely on us to get to their jobs, schools, or homes during a significant emergency,” said Nanci Eksterowicz, VTA risk manager.

Depending on the need, VTA can usually provide two to four buses for various emergencies throughout the region, and potentially further. For example, VTA was asked to help transport local firefighters during the massive blazes that occurred in the summer of 2008 in Chico, CA—about five hours from San Jose. Because of the distance involved, the planning process for the trip itself required a collaborative effort.

“We were told a couple days before that we would be working to help transport Santa Clara County firefighters. We knew we would help, but we had to prepare our vehicles; our buses are not set up for traveling long distances on the freeways through the hot central valley in the summertime,” said Bill Capps, deputy director of operations.

This particular mutual aid effort required two VTA buses, each making two trips up north. Prior to the buses’ scheduled journey, VTA’s maintenance staff equipped them with new tires and took other precautionary measures to ensure a smooth trip. The collaborative assistance effort was successful: the buses transported fresh crews of local firefighters to the location of the fires and returned with tired firefighters who had spent a week on the fire line.

Sometimes VTA transports large numbers of people in situations that are not emergencies. In August 2009, VTA carried 90 soldiers from the California Army National Guard, 184th Infantry Battalion, from Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport to the California Army National Guard Armory on Hedding Street in San Jose. The personnel were participating in a 400-day deployment, approximately one year of which was spent in Iraq. VTA provided three buses to help reunite the troops with family and friends at the armory.

“VTA was proud to assist with this mutual aid request. We were glad to welcome our troops back home to Santa Clara County,” said VTA General Manager Michael T. Burns.

Making Decisions
Although VTA wants to help in emergencies, when the need exceeds its resources and interrupts service, the agency has to make a decision whether to help.

For example, during the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989, VTA stepped in to provide transportation services to hundreds of people who were left stranded by the magnitude 6.9 temblor that struck the California coast, from Monterey to San Francisco, during peak commute time. Since the earthquake was centered in the mountains south of San Jose, VTA, along with all local emergency first responders, had to face some very difficult choices. The VTA bus system was vulnerable to earthquake damage, and employees at its Operations Control Center had to deal with numerous incidents throughout the valley.

John Carlson, VTA superintendent service manager was working that fateful evening. “It was massive. We knew we were needed, especially to help serve those in the Santa Cruz Mountains area,” he recalled.

During that time, VTA buses did not regularly transport passengers to Santa Cruz—but, given the dire circumstances in the earthquake’s aftermath, people needed safe conveyance to the Santa Cruz Mountains. VTA worked with Santa Cruz Metro to coordinate the bus route that would navigate Highway 17 into Santa Cruz—which became so popular that VTA officials decided to continue it as part of its regular service. Thus, Highway 17 Express service, which serves on average about a thousand people a day, was instigated by providing emergency transportation.

Twenty years after the emergency, VTA continues to provide mutual aid using a dedicated staff of employees. 

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