Best Practices: Emergency Response

Transit providers must remain prepared for action should an emergency of any kind arise.

The Palm Tran Connection evacuated disabled individuals to the special needs shelter in West Palm Beach, Fla., during Hurricane Dorian this past September.
The Palm Tran Connection evacuated disabled individuals to the special needs shelter in West Palm Beach, Fla., during Hurricane Dorian this past September.
Palm Tran

Emergency services during hurricane evacuations

By Chris Stephenson, Transportation and Mobility Management Director, Senior Resource Association, Indian River Transit GoLine & Community Coach

Vero Beach, Fla. - When it comes to emergency services in Florida, mass transit is known for hoping for the best but preparing for the worst. In Indian River County, a community of 154,000 people between West Palm Beach and Orlando, every June through November (“Hurricane Season”), the Senior Resource Association (SRA), the organization contracted to provide mass transit and paratransit in the county, stays updated on tropical storm potential regularly. SRA is responsible for transporting individuals to the special-needs shelter (SNS) when the county’s Emergency Operations Center activates its hurricane shelters. Special needs individuals are residents whose medical condition may require the use of electrical equipment, oxygen, dialysis or individuals with physical, cognitive or medical conditions who may require assistance from medical professionals. These evacuations require meticulous planning and flawless execution. Due to the vulnerable nature of these passengers, each trip takes time and space is limited on each vehicle because of all the items passengers are bringing, so multi-loading is difficult.

Three times in the past four years the SNS has been activated in Indian River County. Hurricane Matthew in 2016 saw 188 people go to the SNS, Hurricane Irma in 2017 saw 276 and Hurricane Dorian in September of 2019 saw 194 people.

Although a lot of shelter residents are dropped off by friends/relatives, during each of these storms SRA helped evacuate and transport more than 100 individuals in the hours leading up to the arrival of tropical storm force winds. Many processes have been put in place to make Senior Resource Association/Indian River Transit’s operation a best practice for emergency services during hurricane evacuations.

1. Regular communication with the Emergency Operations Center. Staff at the EOC send SRA a list at least once every month of all the people who are registered for the shelter so transit staff can start putting together a plan on how to evacuate each household. This happens even if it’s December or January and no storm is in sight.

2. SRA runs mass transit fixed route buses for as long as possible in the hours leading up the storm. This gives people the ability to get supplies to prepare their homes. It would really be unfortunate if transit wasn’t there for people when they MOST needed it.

3. SRA takes the pets of SNS clients to the humane society before taking the passenger to the shelter. (The humane society watches their pets during the storm). It adds a leg to the trip but makes the passenger transition much faster because individuals aren’t worried about their animals. This is how we take a small level of stress away from the public during an already super-stressful situation. (In addition to evacuating those individuals/pets, SRA is also responsible for transporting general population residents with pets that reside within evacuation zones to the pet friendly shelter in Indian River County).

4. For paratransit services SRA prints off drivers’ schedules and manifests for the weeks following the storm ahead of time. Even though our building is supposed to be able to withstand hurricane force winds, we want to be able to get back on the road ASAP to trip people after the storm, even if we have no electricity, internet access, phones, etc. in our building.

5. The school district in Indian River County helps transport the general population that live in evacuation zones to/from other shelter sites in the county, but even they have called on the transit agency to help in the past. Transit agencies have to be flexible and willing to help out in whatever way they can. Storms are a great opportunity for transit agencies in the community to show how relevant they can be to people’s quality of life.

6. Following the storm, SRA is responsible for getting people home after it’s confirmed the residence can support the individuals’ special needs.


Palm Tran takes an all-hazards approach to emergency weather preparation 

By Clinton B. Forbes, Executive Director, Palm Tran

West Palm Beach, Fla. - Located in Palm Beach County, Palm Tran has the vital task of preparing for hurricane season, which spans from June 1 to November 30 each year. However, Palm Tran’s comprehensive emergency management plan goes far beyond hurricane preparation. Palm Tran must be prepared to move on a moment’s notice in the event of any and all-natural disasters.

Palm Tran employs various measures year-round to maintain an all-hazards approach to weather preparation. We live and work in paradise; however, we must balance that lifestyle with ensuring our public transportation system can meet the demands that come with being located in a subtropical climate. Employees train all year, get credentialed all year and even take Federal Emergency Management Agency classes to maintain their expertise in handling weather emergencies.

Palm Tran assumes the role of the transportation unit leader at the Emergency Operations Center (EOC). This is an essential emergency support function and Palm Tran is responsible for all facets of transportation-related items during an activation of the EOC.

The decision on whether or not to cease operations is a balancing act that every transit agency in the country has to address. In the case of a hurricane, Palm Tran monitors the wind, the rain and any adverse effects that could affect fixed-route services. Our goal is to maintain public transit for as long as possible up until the point in which conditions deteriorate and we can no longer do so.

Palm Tran’s hurricane policy requires bus service to be discontinued if winds reach a sustained level of 39 miles per hour and/or if emergency operations personnel deem driving conditions unsafe. In the event of a mandated evacuation, Palm Tran buses will cease regularly scheduled service and begin emergency evacuation from evacuation zones.

All Palm Tran employees are considered to be essential first responders and need to be prepared physically and mentally to respond. The utilization of Everbridge, a mass notification system, is crucial technology when it comes to texting, emailing and calling Palm Tran employees in regard to work and shelter assignments.

In addition, Everbridge is used to communicate with the list of more than 10,000 pre-registered individuals listed as possibly needing transportation. Palm Tran’s paratransit service, Palm Tran Connection, takes the lead when an evacuation order is given to transport special needs residents to shelters that meet their specific needs. These residents evacuate between three and five days, so Palm Tran Connection operators must be prepared to transport them along with three to five days of their belongings to the shelters. Some of the items brought on board include electrically-dependent medical equipment to sustain life.

After the storm is where the real uncertainty begins. Palm Tran will evaluate the damage to infrastructure to determine what appropriate actions are plausible. In these moments, it is important to be a chameleon and understand the flexibility of what needs to be done. Our number one resource is our human capital so Palm Tran will take inventory of our staff such as totaling available bus operators and maintenance technicians to make critical decisions on how to respond.

In terms of protecting our bus fleet, Palm Tran parks its buses in several different parts of the county. Palm Tran is fortunate to have a relationship with the county which allows it to park its buses at public parks if needed. We recognize the importance of maintaining solid relationships on both the county and state levels. Ultimately, the goal is to plan for the absolute worst while hoping for the best. At Palm Tran, our mission is to provide access to opportunity for everyone, and our emergency weather preparation plans ensure that no one is left behind in a catastrophic weather emergency.

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Up Next:

We're on the lookout for Best Practices on the following topics:

  • Improving efficiencies with data in our December/January issue
  • Passenger information in our February issue

If you think your agency's way of doing business applies, we want to hear from you: editors@masstransitmag.com. 

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