A Mutual Responsibility: Handling Emergency Situations

Since the days of 9/11, changes in how we live our everyday lives have been occurring with greater regularity. Safety and security are at the forefront of many minds, whether it is avoiding another terrorist attack or taking care of hurricane victims. As a nation we have tried to become more proactive and less reactive, sometimes for our benefit and sometimes to our detriment.

However, it is not always possible to be proactive. Sometimes having the correct response is essential in minimizing the impact of an emergency or natural disaster. In regards to the transit industry, the importance of working together cannot be understated. Agencies must be able to work with local law enforcement, federal and state authorities to deal with emergencies and security issues.

Earlier in 2012, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) hosted a transit security communications drill at its Marketing & Communications Workshop. The drill — the first of its kind — covered multiple emergency scenarios that could possibly be encountered, with transit agency professionals, as well as representatives from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) taking part.

“The transit tabletop exercise that was conducted at the APTA Communications conference was an effort to get transit communications professionals focused on the vital roles they would play in the event of a terrorist incident,” says Lisa Farbstein, Office of Public Affairs, Transportation Security Administration (TSA), “and to get them thinking about some of the issues and challenges that they will face in informing their passengers and the general public if an incident does occur. I think it was valuable because it got the transit officials thinking about what they should do to prepare for an attack and what their role will be should something arise. It also was to raise their awareness of how a terrorist incident on another mass transit system may ultimately affect their own agency and how they will need to communicate to their passengers.”

“While I have years of media relations experience and represent two public transportation entities, I had never participated in a drill that included communicators from public transport systems, as well as the Department of Homeland Security, Transportation Security Administration and the Federal Transit Administration,” says Luna Salaver, public information officer, BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) and Capital Corridors Joint Powers Authority. “ It was an opportunity for transit communicators to hear what their colleagues do during a disaster, learn what practices are in place and share effective communications tools as well.”

“The MARTA (Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority) Police Department every year hosts a tabletop drill and full-scale exercise for all agency departments throughout MARTA to practice and prepare our emergency plans,” says Cara Hodgson, manager of communications, MARTA. “During these extremely effective and beneficial drills, we also work with our local law enforcement agencies and emergency responders. The APTA transit security communications drill was an excellent opportunity to take our local preparation efforts to a national level and learn more about coordinating with federal agencies in the case of an emergency incident that impacted transit systems across the country.”

The drill itself was a minute-by-minute exercise of what actions are taken, both at a federal and regional level, when a threat to transit occurs in different parts of the nation on the same day. The evolving nature of the terrorist threat requires a regular evaluation on how efficient and effective operations can be, to build on successes and to continuously improve.

“I came away with a stronger knowledge of the communications steps, both internally and externally, that our federal partners take to keep transportation, security and elected officials, and the public informed,” says Salaver. “This lesson underscored the vital need for inter-agency communications and relationships during a crisis.”

Always Room for Improvement

No one is saying that there is not more work to be done, however. Transit agencies strive to become more intelligence-driven and provide the most effective security in the most efficient manner, but there is always opportunity to improve, learning lessons from past experiences, as well as using new technologies and ideas.

“One of the biggest lessons that we all learned from the drill is that no matter the size of your transit system there is always the potential for a terrorist attack to occur and you need to be prepared,” says Hodgson. “No one should ever feel that they are immune from being impacted by this kind of emergency incident.”

“What surprised me the most [in the workshop] was how little communication currently exists between the transit agencies and government agencies such as the TSA and DHS,” says Bonnie Arnold, public information officer, South Florida Regional Transportation Authority.

“One thing that we often discuss on a local level is that we don’t want the first time we meet and work with our local law enforcement agencies and emergency responders to be during an incident,” Hodgson continues. “The APTA drill gave us as transit communicators the opportunity to meet our federal transit and emergency response agency counterparts and familiarize ourselves with their agencies. The drill also gave the group an overview of which agencies would be the decision-makers and provide assistance to transit systems during a national emergency.”

There is a need for those communicating to work on big-picture projects, including updating crisis communications plans and committing to internal and regional drills and training to keep on top of new technological tools. “I came away feeling that there was a tremendous amount of work still to be done,” says Arnold. “I’m especially seeing it now because the final presidential debate will be hosted in our community and there has been a great deal of collaboration between agencies to see that it comes off successfully and safely.”

“I left the [APTA] security workshop feeling comfortable that overall, inter-agency communications is viewed as a critical element to disaster relief; however, communicators in thepublic sector can’t rest on our laurels,” says Salaver. “To bring inter-agency communications to its optimal level we must be diligent in how we view it and how we nurture it. A severe crisis on public transit can quickly evolve into a Hydra, with several of your departments busy flaying each head just to get the system back in operation. Knowing we can count on other agencies to help address a crisis, having those contacts in easy reach via phone, email, text messaging or whatever avenue you use, is a powerful tool.”

Not All Emergencies are the Same

Every emergency situation is different and this can change the process of inter-agency communication.

“Communications to other agencies are handled differently dependent on the scenario,” says Salaver. “BART has developed standard procedures for any situation, whether it’s an incident involving a third-party threat to the system to a major earthquake. BART Police Department and our transportation/operations staff would deal with a terrorist threat one way, versus a different type of emergency, such as a fire on or near the tracks. In general, public transit agencies, given the volume of people we handle daily, have developed standard emergency response procedures that involve inter-agency communications.”

“In the case of a weather emergency such as a winter storm, employees might not be able to report to their offices so it’s important to consider how employees could work remotely to keep operations functioning,” says Hodgson. “As such, MARTA’s annual drills always involve different scenarios so that we can work through the varying response and recovery efforts that would be required.”

“We have a working group called the South Florida Media Coalition that gets together on a monthly basis to address such issues,” says Arnold. “It includes representatives from transit agencies and emergency responders such as police and fire rescue, as well as PIOs from such agencies as the Red Cross. It also includes working members of the media. When these issues come up, be they natural or man-made disasters, this is the group that will respond to them.”

For more information on the Public Transit-Information Sharing Analysis Center (PT-ISAC) and the Transit Policing and Security Peer Advisory Group (PAG), visit www.MassTransitmag.com/10810705.