From Mobility to Emergencies: Public Transit's Role

Posted on April 5, 2017 by Heather Redfern - Also by this author

An emergency exercise simulating how SEPTA's 'Special' buses are used during an evacuation or other emergency response. Photo: SEPTA
An emergency exercise simulating how SEPTA's 'Special' buses are used during an evacuation or other emergency response. Photo: SEPTA
Transit’s role as a public service is much more than driving millions of riders — many of whom have no other transportation option — every day.

Mass transit authorities can often be called upon to assist during an emergency event. In the past year, SEPTA buses have been used to transport or shelter residents evacuated due to fire, provide a place of respite for first responders, and serve as a makeshift intake facility for emergency organizations. SEPTA’s buses have even been used to rescue passengers of disabled school buses.

“Our priority is to serve our communities, whether it be transporting our customers to work, school, and appointments, or stepping in during a crisis,” said SEPTA chief officer, surface transportation, Mike Liberi.

The American Red Cross used one of SEPTA buses to gather information on residents and animals evacuated as a result of March 11 fire in Philadelphia. Photo: Red Paw Emergency Relief Team
The American Red Cross used one of SEPTA buses to gather information on residents and animals evacuated as a result of March 11 fire in Philadelphia. Photo: Red Paw Emergency Relief Team

Mass transit can also assist four-legged, furry members of their communities.
On a Saturday in early March, eight puppies, training to become Seeing Eye® dogs by members of Montgomery County (Pa.) 4-H Seeing Eye Puppy Club, boarded the Route 96 bus in Lansdale, Pa., and headed for Montgomeryville Mall. However, the student puppies’ first ride on mass transit wasn’t a leisure outing to the mall; the overall mission of the trip is for the dogs to be taught basic obedience and socialization skills before they are matched with their owners — who happen to be visually impaired.

“Blind people depend upon public transportation, so the dogs really have to handle mass transit,” said Sandy Marshall, coordinator of the Montgomery County 4-H group. “These dogs are their line to independence.”

Seeing Eye guide dog-in-training Granger boarding the bus with his trainer Barb. Photo: SEPTA
Seeing Eye guide dog-in-training Granger boarding the bus with his trainer Barb. Photo: SEPTA

Marshall brought Windy, a 10-month old Labrador, on the trip.  Among those joining Windy were Granger, a nine-month old German Shepherd with trainer Barb Ward; Jazzy, a 10-month old Labrador/Golden Retriever mix, with trainer Barbarann Probst and daughter Ava; and Richard, a 13-month old Labrador, with trainer Abby Pietrack and her mother Maria.

 “Handlers regularly take their service animals-in-training on our buses,” said Josh Gottlieb, SEPTA's director, administration and finance of surface transportation. “Having more than one training dog at a time is unusual — we mostly see one or two dogs at a time. We are happy to be able to assist in the service animal training process with our vehicles.”

Seeing Eye guide dog-in-training Richard riding his first SEPTA bus with his trainer Abby and her mother Maria. Photo: SEPTA
Seeing Eye guide dog-in-training Richard riding his first SEPTA bus with his trainer Abby and her mother Maria. Photo: SEPTA

Since 1929, The Seeing Eye has partnered with people who are blind by assisting them in enhancing their independence, dignity, and self-confidence through the use of Seeing Eye® dogs. Nearly 16,000 specially bred and trained dogs have brought a new level of mobility, safety, and self-sufficiency to approximately 8,000 men and women throughout the U.S. and Canada.

The puppies riding the Route 96 bus are owned by The Seeing Eye. The puppies will return to the organization when they reach about 14 months and then they will pair with their owners for further training.

Heather Redfern is the Public Information Manager for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority.

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