The key to maximizing a university transportation operation’s safety and properly respond to an emergency is partnering with local police and fire authorities and maintaining an open line of communication.
Although this sounds a bit obvious, Karen Walton, general manager for First Transit in El Paso, Texas, said it requires some effort for transportation managers to change their mindsets. “We tend to think ‘convenience, convenience, convenience,’ while the police think ‘safety, safety, safety,’” she said.
Under contract to the University of Texas, El Paso (UTEP) since August 2007, First Transit services three routes with 11 buses and also provides charter service. It transports 3,500 to 4,000 students a day, mainly around the perimeter of the campus.
Walton, previously the executive director of the Mat-Su Transit in Wasilla, Alaska, said one of the first things she did at UTEP was ask the El Paso police chief for First Transit to put into the emergency response plan. “Improving emergency response is an ongoing process these days,” she said. “With the recent school shootings, it’s come to the forefront.”
Walton also asked if First Transit could be included in police and fire training programs. “There are hundreds of ways you can train with police and fire,” she said. “We want them to use us for training.” As an example, she said police in Wasilla used one of the Mat-Su buses to practice a hostage scenario. In this case, the captor switched shirts with the bus operator to confuse the police. “I would have never thought of that,” Walton said.
Other ways in which the police can help, Walton said, is by auditing bus stop locations for dangerous traffic situations. They can also check the lighting at the stop and the general safety of the location based on their knowledge of crime patterns.
Transit professionals can return the favor by providing police and fire agencies with technical expertise. For example, Walton said she has explained to firefighters how they can gain entry to a bus without “cutting big holes in them.” This can help to reduce the time it takes to enter the bus and, less importantly of course, reduce the amount of damage to the vehicle.
Walton said she is developing bus safety posters for UTEP students that can be hung inside the bus and around campus. The messages will be simple but important: Students shouldn’t cross in front of a bus without making eye contact with the driver, and they should never run after a bus. “There’s a bus every 4 minutes, so there’s no reason to race after one that’s just left,” Walton said.