July 5, 2010
The 14 help wanted ads in this week's classifieds offer such jobs as a transit agency general manager and an executive director in academia!
Working to Keep Public Transit Secure and Safe
BY SUSAN R. PAISNER, Senior Managing Editor
Alert today. Alive tomorrow. That could be the catchphrase for how public transportation agencies and their police departments are working together to advance security and safety for their passengers and employees alike.
Several law enforcement experts consulted for this story noted that a systems approach—one that includes people and science—will always work best. In the words of Chief Tom Lambert of the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County’s (Houston Metro) Department of Public Safety: “We believe that technology can be a very effective tool to ‘boots on the ground’ as to how we’re mitigating both security and safety issues.”
The funding circumstance for security and safety mirrors that being felt nationwide among transit systems—namely, decreasing revenues, increased demands, and possible cuts in service. But, as Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) Police Chief Paul MacMillan in Boston added: “In these difficult financial times, agencies need to stay committed to their security initiatives.”
So, what initiatives can members implement to their jobs better? What innovations are transit systems around the country undertaking in the area of public safety and security? How are technology and people working together? Here is just a sampling.
An Integrated Technological Approach
Houston Metro has 26 park-and-ride lots over 1,285 miles of service area, parking more than 30,000 cars every day. Would it be possible, Lambert and others wondered, to increase the use of closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras, open and close gates remotely, work with a public address system from a centralized location, and feed critically important information to responding police officers in real time? In short, the answer was “yes.”
The transit system has 354 cameras, and “no officer can monitor all those at one time,” said Lambert. But the department uses analytics and software intelligence that flag an officer if something is happening. Based on the information provided, the officer can close or open the lot, use the public address system to communicate, and provide information to extra officers responding.
Since launching this initiative, Lambert said, Metro has seen a 50 percent reduction in FBI-categorized Part I crimes (including homicides, burglaries, and auto thefts) in its parking lots. While Denver’s Regional Transportation District and New Jersey Transit Corporation (NJ Transit) use similar models, “as applying it to a parking environment,” he added, “we’re about it, to my knowledge.”
Unexpected but Welcomed Consequences
MBTA has expanded its CCTV system over the past few years, and MacMillan, who chairs APTA’s Committee on Public Safety (COPS), has found it serves a dual purpose: “Not only do we use it [in] real time to develop our situational awareness in a station, but we’re also using it in a forensic manner to identify offenders. We’ve had great success using it that way.”
In addition, police agencies in local jurisdictions served by MBTA notify the authority, either that a person has committed a crime and then gotten on an MBTA train or has used a stolen credit card on the system, and MBTA has been able to assist that agency in identifying the suspect. “It’s a change in the way we do business,” said MacMillan.
On the buses, the camera system can record in real time, but the innovation is that it can transmit an image to a responding police cruiser directly behind it—“a technology that has paid dividends for us as well,” he said. He added: “As money permits through the grant process, we’ll continue to expand.”
Safety vision security systems, initially installed on buses to provide security deterrence, are now routinely used in accident investigations and to identify individuals, which often leads to their arrest. Lambert calls this process “leveraging” and adds: “Although you may start with one functional expectation, you can learn so much that at first blush you didn’t focus on. That’s when you challenge yourself to keep learning to benefit the customers and the quality of safety and security you provide to them.”
Houston Metro has installed in-pavement lighting at railroad crossings, so when a motorist approaches an intersection and the light turns red, the in-pavement lights—light up. “We had to work with the Federal Highway Administration to get their agreement in a pilot program,” said Lambert, “but it seems to have been very effective at reducing accidents at those locations.”
Another effort he cited involving lights is the backdrop of a signal head that lights up with red when a train is approaching at the cross-street intersection.
Securing a New Rail Yard and Member City Cooperation
A project new to Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART), based on NJ Transit’s system of thermal imaging intrusion detection, will secure the new rail yard built in conjunction with the doubling of their track. “This is a lot more sophisticated than our previous system,” said Jill Shaw, DART’s manager of emergency preparedness. “We’re hoping it works out because we just received an FY 2010 grant for a tunnel intrusion system based on the same technology.”
With the rail expansion, Shaw noted, emergency responders in cities served by the train “are taking an incredibly active effort in learning about rail safety and security and responding to incidents on the rail.” She added that they have been “very proactive” in ensuring their employees are trained “ahead of time,” meaning before any trains start service.
Lambert worked with Houston’s public works department to program signal timing to allow queue jumping for trains. As the train comes to a signalized intersection and receives a signal to stop, it gets extra time to go through. Trains get a head start so drivers will see them and cease trying to make left-hand turns.
The system has experienced no left turn accidents since beginning this program in 2008.
A Commonality of Concerns
“Everybody is dealing with the issue of manpower now; everybody is doing more with less, due to budget cutbacks,” said Sgt. Charles Rappleyea, who heads up the Charlotte/Mecklenburg Police Department transit police unit for the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) and serves as COPS vice chair. “Much of safety and security is very manpower-intensive—and people would always rather see a police officer than a camera—but personnel is very expensive,” he said, which is why the ability to leverage technology is essential.
DART’s Shaw agreed, but added a cautionary note: “Technology is wonderful, but it will never replace people. The biggest part of the security system is not the money and equipment, it’s our operators, our employees, and our customers—it’s the people watching things. You can’t make a computer do that.”
Public Transportation: One of the Safest Ways to Travel
Simply put, public transportation is one of the safest ways to travel. According to DOT statistics, there was an annual average of only one passenger fatality on heavy rail (subway) between 2003 and 2008, and no passenger fatalities on light rail transit (streetcars, trolleys) during the same period.
Also for this time period, transit bus travel resulted in 0.05 deaths per 100 million passenger miles, compared to 1.42 deaths for motor vehicles. Highway fatality numbers average almost 42,000 over that six-year period; 32,000 of those involved motor vehicle occupants.
Individual public transportation systems have established system safety plans and programs. Key elements to their continuing to provide safe services and work environments include employee training, rules and procedures, and safety inspections. All of these programs work to create a culture of safety throughout the public transit agencies.
APTA’s safety promotion efforts include the Rail Safety Audit Management Program; more than 25 years of safety peer reviews; standards for heavy rail and light rail designed in conjunction with industry professionals, technical experts, labor representatives, the federal government, and other professional organizations; and safety research—both in-house and through the Transportation Research Board’s Transit Cooperative Research Program (TCRP).
APTA’s bus operators launched a standards program several years ago with funding from TCRP and the Federal Transit Administration. The first bus standards were approved in May 2005.
Personal Safety and Security
To help residents feel safer—and ultimately be safer—while using public transportation, especially after dark, many police departments (including those in transit systems and universities) have developed common sense steps to take. These include:
* Beware of overheard conversations. Don’t tell anyone on the bus or a subway where you are going.
* Stay awake and alert.
* Wait at busy, well-lit stops.
* Have exact change or your fare pass ready and in hand when boarding.
* Try to sit near the driver, particularly during non-rush hours.
* If someone on the bus bothers you, change your seat and inform the driver.
* If anyone harasses or threatens you, scream to call attention to yourself and the situation.
* Look around when getting off the bus, train, or trolley, and be aware of those around you.
* If you sense someone is following you when you leave, walk toward a populated area or into a retail establishment. Do not walk directly home.
Older residents can become increasingly vulnerable as they age; they might notice a loss of strength, balance, or dexterity. These physical changes can have a significant impact on them as they travel on public transportation. While all the tips suggested are relevant, older residents can also take some additional steps to ensure their physical safety:
* When you enter or leave a vehicle, watch for slippery or uneven pavement and other hazards that could cause you to fall or twist an ankle. With the same thought in mind, try not to carry so many packages that you don’t leave one hand free to grasp railings.
* Always watch your step when boarding, as there is usually a gap between the edge of the train platform and the subway door.
* Have your fare or transit card ready and in hand before you board so you don’t risk losing your balance while perhaps searching for correct change.
* If you are traveling at night, try to wear light-colored clothing so you can be seen easily by both drivers and other pedestrians.
By using common sense and taking a few simple precautions, older riders can enjoy independence and the travel options that public transportation offers.