Denver RTD sees success with safety programs to help protect operators and help with mental health

Feb. 26, 2024
The agency has installed new safety shields to protect operators from riders, as well as instituted a mental health clinician and homeless outreach coordinator on its systems to help riders with their mental health needs.

For the past few years, Denver RTD has been working to increase safety on its systems. The agency not only has worked to protect operators from passengers due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it has also worked on a program to assist riders with their mental health needs. 

Shields to protect drivers from COVID-19 

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 Denver Regional Transit District (RTD) began working on a permanent safety barrier solution to protect drivers from the rise in operator assaults. The project was made a top priority for the agency, with Denver RTD’s Leadership Team expressing support from the start and helping to make sure the funding and resources were in place to begin ordering the shields as soon as possible.  

Denver RTD had initially identified two manufacturers that could produce safety shields and selected AROW Global as the supplier of its AROWGuard Slide System as the product that would be installed on Denver RTD’s bus fleet. AROWGuard has a partnership with Gillig, the manufacturer of the majority of Denver RTD’s bus fleet, which made retrofitting older buses a much easier process according to the agency. 

Denver RTD notes the product allowed operators to get in and out of their workspaces easily while still receiving maximum protection. The new system, custom-built for the fleet’s different buses, features a laminated safety glass system reinforced by a steel door. 

New shields are stronger than plexiglass barriers 

Denver RTD says the upgraded safety shields are a major improvement over the in-house design engineered during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic to protect operators from customers.  

“We can build pretty much anything and everything here at the body shop,” said Daniel Ortega, a body shop supervisor at Denver RTD’s District Shops. “I have probably the most talented group of guys in the United States. They can fabricate anything with the tools we have here at Denver RTD.”  

While the plexiglass barriers were a quick, inexpensive temporary solution during the pandemic, Denver RTD notes the new safety shields are engineered to withstand punches, kicks and attacks using blunt force objects. In addition, the system allows the operator to extend the safety glass for more protection.  

Installation of the new safety shields began in late 2023, with a focus on 6000-series buses that operate on routes with higher numbers of operator assaults. Denver RTD says each installation takes a team of two technicians about four hours to install the safety shield. At the current pace, technicians complete approximately two buses per day. 

Eric Castillo, assistant general superintendent of bus maintenance for Denver RTD, said the new safety shields have been installed on 128 buses as of Feb. 8, with a goal to complete 250 buses by the end of June. He also noted that 102 new in-service buses came with the shields pre-installed. While the goal is for all buses to have protective barriers, a time frame has not yet been established to reach every vehicle. 

“Operating a bus has to be one of the most challenging jobs out there,” Ortega said. “I have the upmost respect for our drivers and if we can do our little part to increase their safety, it’s a win-win for not just our drivers, but for everyone." 

Mental health safety 

In 2019, Denver RTD became the first transit agency in the country to have a mental health clinician work alongside its transit police. Spearheaded by Denver RTD Deputy Chief Steve Martingano, the agency started offering outreach services based on a pilot program with Well Power – formerly the Mental Health Center of Denver – and its mental health clinicians. The program has fostered agency relationships to increase customer access to resources in the Denver RTD service area. 

In January 2022, Denver RTD added a homeless outreach coordinator to its in-house efforts. Currently, two mental health clinicians and a homeless outreach coordinator are working on behalf of Denver RTD. As part of the program, a Denver RTD Transit Police officer accompanies a mental health clinician to areas within the agency’s district to provide referrals and resources, rather than make an arrest for what could be misinterpreted as criminal behavior rather than understood as a mental health crisis. 

Denver RTD says its outreach program is making a positive difference in being able to offer needed resources. 

“The biggest improvement has been the building of trust with individuals that are experiencing homelessness and mental health issues. The Transit Police officers have made great strides in developing relationships with and directing people to outreach organizations for assistance,” Martingano said. 

Given the success of the Denver RTD outreach program, the agency plans to add five additional mental health clinicians and five more homeless outreach coordinators with the Jefferson Center for Mental Health to work on the agency’s behalf. 

“This will assist with more daily coverage and directly impact being able to provide people with resources in Denver RTD service areas,” Martingano said. “We work with eight counties and 40 cities for transit services. The response times to assist Denver RTD with issues related to an encampment on Denver RTD property makes a big difference to life safety. Our homeless outreach coordinator, Alton Reynolds, knows where shelters and organizations are throughout our service area so he can direct individuals to these resources and help them use buses or trains to get to their destination. 

Another improvement since launching Denver RTD’s outreach program has been through the homeless outreach coordinator’s collaborative efforts to work closely with Denver RTD Rail, Bus, Facilities and Safety departments. 

“Alton receives information about encampments that are affecting operations and causing life safety concerns. He has built partnerships with all the counties and cities Denver RTD services, by reaching out for support on getting people to proper resources. The main goal is to not move the problem from Denver RTD to public property, but rather to work together to find a solution,” Martingano said. 

By the end of 2024, Denver RTD plans to have seven mental health clinicians and six homeless outreach coordinators working in areas that mirror the Transit Police sector footprint. 

About the Author

Brandon Lewis | Associate Editor

Brandon Lewis is a recent graduate of Kent State University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lewis is a former freelance editorial assistant at Vehicle Service in Endeavor Business Media’s Vehicle Repair Group. Lewis brings his knowledge of web managing, copyediting and SEO practices to Mass Transit Magazine as an associate editor.