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May 11, 2009

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APTA BUS & PARATRANSIT CONFERENCE COVERAGE

Preparedness Pays Off for Transit Agencies
BY JOHN R. BELL, APTA Program Manager

In planning for emergencies, several practices are crucial: building key relationships before disaster happens, training regularly, and preparing communications strategies. Several presenters shared these lessons at the APTA 2008 Bus and Paratransit Conference.

Former police officer Mike DeCapua of King County Metro Transit described his system’s training program, which includes a tactical response plan, an exercise design team, and scenarios that combine several calamities for the ultimate real-world test. They conduct two major field exercises a year, each of which takes two months to plan.

All exercises must comply with the Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP), and all, he emphasized, stress the importance of communications. “Ideally, you don’t want cops talking to bus drivers, but instead have cops talking to incident commanders who are talking to their counterparts at the transit system, who in turn are dealing with drivers,” he said.

The next presenters, from the Small Urban and Rural Transit Center at North Dakota State University—Carol Wright, associate director of outreach and training and Gary Hegland, associate research fellow and a former B-52 pilot—reflected on the floods that hit Fargo last winter.

Coping with the flood emergency required a great deal of coordination among Fargo Metro Area Transit (MAT), social services, and first responders. MAT rerouted and curtailed its bus operations, and pressed school buses into service. MAT transported volunteers to work sites, remained on standby for evacuation, and maintained as much fixed route and paratransit service as possible. The system also evacuated residents from nursing homes.

Hegland advised that systems prepare for national media when natural disasters occur; they should also guard against isolation in planning and preparing for emergencies by involving the entire community.

Wright recommended having transit system personnel at all volunteer locations and maintenance personnel 24 hours per day, seven days per week, as MAT did during the flooding. The agency also borrowed personnel from other city departments, while First Transit brought in 21 drivers, a program manager, and a driver development safety manager from Minneapolis to help with the effort.

The public and local businesses also participated, Wright said: “Businesses were asked to be closed. That shut down their enterprise for almost a full week. People were asked not to drive ... and didn’t. They did what they were asked to do.”


Sniffing the Way to Reduced Delays
Deputy Tim Morgan is a bomb technician for the King County Metro Police in Seattle. His partner, Stevie, has a nose for sniffing out explosives. To maintain his training, the black Labrador retriever must be rewarded with food 35 to 40 times a day in exchange for detecting positive samples.

“Labs have that strong hunting instinct,” Morgan said. Stevie can detect all known explosive odors—19,000 of them—including trace odors, such as those from a spent shell casing or the powder residue on a person’s hand.

This olfactory ability has paid off for King County Metro Transit. Morgan recounted an incident when an unattended bag on the E3 bus line in Seattle forced a line closure. Once Stevie arrived, he established that the bag was safe in less than one minute vs. a “normal, non-Stevie response time” of 1.5-2 hours, during which that bus route would have been out of operation.

Last year, Stevie responded to 82 such calls on public transit. “So, even though of those 82 times we haven’t found a ticking bomb,” said Morgan, “to those people on those buses standing on the side of the freeway … it’s a big deal.”

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