Meeting Challenges in Bus Transit Security

BY JOHN CRANDALL, For Passenger Transport

Whether it's snowballs, graffiti, bus hijackings, or bomb plots, the public transportation industry needs to be aware of the threats it faces every day.

So, on the final day of the APTA Bus & Paratransit Conference in Long Beach, CA, panelists discussed what public transit systems in Kentucky, California, and Wisconsin are doing to prepare for potential security risks and to analyze actual ones.

During the May 9 morning session, "Current Issues & Challenges in Bus Transit Security," William Kessler, director of safety, Transit Authority of River City, Louisville, KY, talked about the steps public transit systems must take to stay safe.

According to Kessler, every public transportation system should have some basics: cameras, stealth alarm systems, an excellent rapport with law enforcement, and public outreach efforts. He also pointed to a host of new technologies coming down the pipeline to aid in security, including biometric iris recognition and remote behavior tracking systems.

Kessler added that one of the most important things a public transit official can do to make sure things are running safely is to get out there and see what's happening on the routes, what he called "putting your feet to the street, where the action is." As he said: "I can sit behind a desk all day, but ... [that's] not going to get the job done there."

He also warned attendees that they need to be on the lookout for the possibility of "the coming of the bus-borne terrorist," a lone wolf who may use a bus to engage in terrorist activity—for example, a bomb plot or a hijacking—but is not affiliated with a hate group or terrorist organization.

Connie Raya, section manager III, Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA), Orange, CA, reported on an innovative program that helps law enforcement and public transit officials keep track of taggers—people who spray graffiti.

The program—named, surprisingly enough, TAGRS, or the Tracking and Automated Graffiti Reporting System—keeps a list of graffiti incidents by location, time, suspect, and numerous other details. It also helps agency officials share that information with additional organizations.

OCTA has garnered a number of awards, including the National Association of Counties Achievement Award, since implementing TAGRS in 2009.

"Over the years, our public transportation systems have been plagued by graffiti," Raya explained. "[TAGRS] maximizes cost recovery for the Orange County Transportation Authority."

Calling the system a "proactive response" and "a step in the right direction," she noted that the program saves countless hours of association time, adding: "We hope the system will be adopted on a national level."

Julie Schneider, transit security planning coordinator, Milwaukee County Transit System, spoke about how streamlining her organization's criminal incident reporting system helped her better predict and understand crime in her community.

For example, one of her first changes was to add a "severity code" to incident reports: a snowball thrown at the bus might get a 1, while a bomb threat would get a 3. This, she said, helps public transit officials obtain a better grasp of what's happening and plan security responses accordingly.

Schneider also winnowed down the number of categories to 10, then divided them into subcategories—and she eliminated the classification "other" from the statistics list.

"It's important for teams to use something other than 'other,'" she said. "It took a little bit of doing, but we got rid of the 'other' category and we really had a good look at what was going on in the bus."

Before the end of the session, moderator Sgt. David Marander, transit enforcement, City of Long Beach Police Department, asked the public transportation industry for its help in creating an inexpensive way for security professionals to disable a bus' movement.

"One of my fears is that maybe one day somebody's going to commandeer a bus and do tremendous damage," said Marander, who added that Long Beach has seen a number of bus hijackings. While a system is available that would disable a bus' motion, he noted, it is expensive.

"I think we, as a group, need to champion making it less expensive and making it a viable option," Marander said. "If any of you has any opportunity to influence somebody ... [about] this, please do."

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