Passenger and fleet safety have always been the major concern of the U.S. motorcoach industry. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, however, motorcoach operators quickly broadened their focus to address the new threat of terrorism.
“Our industry has been focused on safety. Safety and security are not the same. While we have an excellent safety record, we hadn’t really addressed security to any extent,” says Victor Parra, president and CEO of the United Motorcoach Association (UMA).
Recent world events have reinforced the need for vigilance. “The London bombings basically told us that transportation systems aren’t free and clear from terrorist activities,” says Christopher Crean, director of safety and security for Peter Pan Bus Lines Inc. in Springfield, Mass. “It just reaffirmed our belief that we’re heading in the right direction in protecting our passengers and our assets.”
To provide monetary assistance, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been offering grants for intercity bus security for the past three years.
Grants, totaling $5 million in 2003 and $10 million in 2004, have been given to numerous operators and organizations to aid in the development of security programs, to upgrade equipment and to secure facilities.
This year, DHS has announced that $9.65 million in intercity bus security grants will be available to qualified motorcoach operators. The money is designed to provide resources for preventing and detecting explosive devices, supporting passenger and luggage screening, increasing facility safety and improving training.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has yet to mandate security requirements for motorcoach operators. Instead, they’ve worked to provide guidance and funding for the development of security programs through continual dialogues with the major operators and motorcoach associations. Both the UMA and the American Bus Association have received grants to help develop motorcoach security training programs.
The TSA has also developed the Transportation Security Operations Center (TSOC), which collects and aggregates information from all modes of transportation. “We have greater connectivity across all modes so that we can see trends and address issues before they become a problem,” says TSA spokesman Darren Kayser.
Adding security systems
Motorcoach operators have largely focused on increasing communication with their fleets to aid in both safety and security.
One simple solution has been to outfit drivers with cell phones preprogrammed to contact local emergency authorities and the operator’s home office.
Peter Pan is in the process of outfitting its fleet with a global positioning system (GPS) tracking system. Linked to the system is a hidden panic button, which a driver can press to instantaneously alert the company’s command center that a terrorist or hijacking situation is underway.
The GPS system will allow Peter Pan to track the location of all of its fleet, both charter and scheduled route buses, at any given moment. Using the system, Peter Pan can create “no travel zones.” If a coach breaches a boundary, such as traveling to an airport that’s not on its scheduled route, security staff are immediately notified.
Greyhound Lines Inc. in Dallas has created a similar system, known as their onboard communications system (OBC), which provides GPS tracking and “touch of a button” voice communication with the company’s command center. It can be used for security-related calls or more mundane tasks such as facilitating relief buses or attending to passenger needs.
Operators have also been placing cameras on their buses to monitor both the interior and exterior of the vehicle. Several of these systems can both record information for later viewing and, if necessary, transmit live video to an operator’s control center in the case of an emergency.
To provide added security for its operators, Greyhound has started installing driver shields in many of its vehicles, which place a physical barrier between the driver and the rest of the coach.
Many security changes are fairly sensible and easy to implement, says Parra, such as conducting thorough pre-, mid- and post-trip inspections, including checking the engine, wheel wells and under seats. “A lot of it is common sense stuff,” he says, “but it hasn’t been part of our routine.”
Unlike the airlines, motorcoach operators are not currently linked into the federal tracking system and do not have an equivalent of the “no fly list,” largely because most motorcoach operators do not or cannot check for photo identification from all passengers because of legal and logistical concerns.
Instead, Greyhound has implemented a random passenger screening program. On select buses, passengers and baggage are required to undergo a full security screening, including being scanned with a hand-wand.
Passengers on both Greyhound and Peter Pan are required to include their names on all luggage and keep in it their possession at all times until it is loaded on the bus.
Operators can rely heavily on their passenger policies to help create a more secure environment. “One of our most effective tools is our zero-tolerance policy with respect to unruly or aggressive passengers, which includes any behavior in our terminals or on our buses,” says Greyhound spokeswoman Anna Folmnsbee. The policy allows Greyhound to refuse travel to anyone who it believes could create an unsafe situation.
To handle pre- and post-trip concerns, intercity bus operators have also been steadily increasing security at their terminals. Both Greyhound and Peter Pan have increased the number of security guards and added video cameras at their terminals.
TSA is also getting involved on the ground level of passenger security. In mid-September, TSA, Greyhound and Peter Pan will undertake a cooperative trial baggage screening program at their Washington, D.C., terminal. The program will screen luggage for explosives or bomb-making products.
Driver training bolstered
For most operators, training is at the core of their safety and security program. “We’ve implemented security training for all our employees, from the owner of the company right on down,” explains Crean. At Peter Pan, employees are also continually reminded of the importance of safety and security through sections in the weekly employee newsletter.
Operators are training drivers and other staff on how to prepare for emergency situations, how to identify and handle suspicious packages and how to identify potential security risks among passengers.
Running through exercises and scenarios at a company level also helps prepare operators for an emergency situation. Peter Pan has conducted two training exercises with the ABA, TSA and local authorities, including one training scenario that involved simulated terrorist activity taking place on an actual coach.
Industry provides aid
The UMA and ABA received money from the 2003 and 2004 DHS grants to fund security training for the industry. In 2003, using grant money, they developed a security training course for motorcoach and intercity bus operators. Last year, they held 10 train-the-trainer sessions around the country and created and distributed a training module complete with workbook and interactive CD.
As part of the new grant, they are creating a second training program designed to teach operators how to build and run a security program focused around their own company’s threat areas and vulnerabilities.
Because the motorcoach industry is so varied in its makeup, operators often have very different security needs.
“What works for one company might not work for another company,” Parra says. “The training sessions will help you as an operator develop a program that fits the dynamics of your business.”
The training sessions begin in October and are free and open to all companies in the industry, regardless of their membership status or group affiliation.
Needs for the future
Security still has a long way to go in the motorcoach industry, however. Many operators still haven’t addressed security concerns. According to Parra, a significant number of operators didn’t attend the security training sessions last year. “It’s a lot of the smaller operators who haven’t taken the time to get involved in some of the training,” he says.
Even companies on the forefront see the need for added security programs. “We carry four to five times more passengers than the airlines, but our level of federal funding is far below their level,” Crean says. “We should be on the same playing field as the airlines. We’d like to get the same services and security enhancements that they do. There’s a lot happening in the industry with carriers trying to make it safer for passengers and employees. We’re getting there, but it’s slow.”
Aaron Glazer is a freelance writer in Rockville, Md.