Focus on Day-to-Day Transit Security Helps Mitigate Larger Threats

Posted on June 26, 2013 by Janna Starcic, Executive Editor

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Security strategies include high visibility patrols and sweeps of buses and railcars with explosive detection dogs. Photo courtesy NJ Transit.
Security strategies include high visibility patrols and sweeps of buses and railcars with explosive detection dogs. Photo courtesy NJ Transit.

Social media, tools

Public awareness campaigns are one of the many tools being used by transit systems to engage their ridership in the safety and security of the system. Like many transit systems across the country, NJ Transit has implemented the “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign that calls on riders to report suspicious activity.

“We try to message that aggressively on all modes of transportation,” Trucillo says.

NJ Transit also employs a text tips program, where if someone is uncomfortable making a phone call, they can text the tip to the police department. All tips are followed up to let the person sending it know the outcome, he says.

“This tool is publicized with print posters, commercials and radio spots to keep it at the forefront for the ridership,” Trucillo says.

Texting is also a tool being used by the MBTA to receive tips from passengers anonymously. Last year, the transit system implemented a “See Say” security app for the iPhone and Android, which lets riders instantly share pictures and text incident location details to transit police. Riders may choose to send reports anonymously and a rider’s smartphone flash is automatically turned off when taking a photo of something suspicious. Messages are then sent to the police dispatch center. Since its launch, an estimated 8,000 people have downloaded the app. The MBTA police were able to apprehend two individuals accused of selling weapons in a station based on information provided by an app user, MacMillan says.

“We want as many ways possible for our ridership to communicate with us, whether it’s calling us, sending us a text or using this app to send a message,” MacMillan says. “There are 1.4 million people riding the MBTA a day, we obviously can’t be everywhere, but our passengers can assist us in providing for their security by using these tools.”

Los Angeles Metro has a special site, transitwatchla.org devoted to security on the transit system, which features information from the Department of Homeland Security and the local Joint Regional Intelligence Center about what to look for and how to report any information that is possibly terrorist related to the Metro sheriff deputies that patrol the Metro system.

The website also provides current updates to news and information about recent terrorist activities or other criminal activities that could affect the transportation public. Plans are also in the works to launch a Transit Watch app that will give users access to the information on the website and the ability to report to Metro about suspicious activity.

The challenge for transit security police is the fact that transit is a generally open and free environment.

“We have to move a lot of people in a short amount of time. We don’t have the luxury of having people wait in line for a security checkpoint,” MBTA’s MacMillan says. “Mass transit is a soft target and we have to do a number of initiatives to do the best we can to protect our passengers, but the challenge is there are lots of areas where people can come and out of our stations that would be unprotected.”

“As tragic as the events are, we try to learn from them,” Schow says of recent terrorist attacks. “Every time something happens at a large event, we are always asking ourselves, what would we do?”

Another challenge has been the lack of funding for transit system security. With limited funding, security has been supplemented by DHS grants that have been made available through the years.

“Unfortunately, we’ve seen DHS grants diminish significantly over the years. The ability to use those grants for day-to-day [security] purposes is very limited,” APTA’s Hull says.

“Politically, as we move further and further away from 9/11, because we haven’t had a particular terrorist event that has occurred on U.S. soil on a public transit system, there is a general sense in the minds of some decision makers that the level of financial support for security may not be needed to the degree that it was felt shortly after 9/11,” adds Hull. “We have to be very cautious that we don’t allow ourselves to be complacent just because something hasn’t happened.”

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