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Using Public Transit:  Making Sure I Get There In One Piece Every Time!

By: Jorge Palafox

August 05, 2011

Many of us find ourselves using public transportation at one time or another.  Whether it is on the San Francisco MUNI Metro or BART, we find ourselves being whisked away at high speeds only thinking of our final destination and any delays that may hamper our hectic schedules.

There are times we become irritated by the many nuisances that cross our paths as we speed through the tunnels beneath the bay or those winding through our cities and towns – a person with earphones blasting their music, someone who decides to take up two seats with their extra baggage headed to the airport, that bicyclist who just happens to block your exit.  You know the ones I’m talking about.

But what about a major emergency!  Not a nuisance we’d like to confront, but something that requires a little preparation and an emphasis on your awareness.  Mass transit systems are extremely vulnerable and susceptible to accidents, natural disasters or even acts of terrorism.

You should always be vigilante of your surroundings.  Not a bad idea to sit or stand near the exit for a quick escape.  Many times, though, we may not find ourselves at that vantage point.  Be it in a crowded train or having to sit in the middle of one of the cars. 

Mass transit riders should always be aware and vigilant. Be well informed and know your surroundings!  First lesson of being prepared for any potential emergency!  During those long commutes, we like to catch up on some work on our laptops or are distracted by that latest hit on our IPods or other mobile devices.  There are those who may be around ready to take advantage of your distraction.  Not paying attention can make you vulnerable.  Also a good idea for any time you are in a public space….Muggers; people with bad intentions are always looking for anyone who is unaware.

I know this is not considered a major disaster per se, but an attack on your personal space is an invasion of safety.  Therefore, being safe begins with your individual awareness.  The first step of any preparedness activity and response actions starts with ensuring your personal protection.  If you are hurt then you cannot help others, especially those you care about and may depend on you for their safety.

Once your safety awareness is addressed, then the next focus is to know what the emergency exit information is on any mass transit platform or vehicle you step into.  Remember to read those digital signs overhead and listen/be alert to all station (or train once on-board) announcements.  You should know where all the exits are….How to access them….And what steps to take if there are special instructions for opening the escape mechanism for any doors on a subway vehicle.  Wherever you are, whether it is on the platform waiting for a train or on the train, take note of where you can make a quick escape; always try to find where the closest exit sign is located.

Do not use elevators.  Stairs are your best bet.  Locate the pay phones, fire alarm boxes and fire extinguishers, just in case.  Not a bad idea to brush up on how to use a fire extinguisher correctly.  This may a good time to take a Disaster Preparedness Class from your local Fire Department, e.g., NERT, or some sort of formal training.  An ABC type of extinguisher is what is usually recommended for home use.

Especially be wary of anyone leaving a package behind in his seat.  General terrorism literature states to be alert for suspicious persons.  But what constitutes suspicious, especially in very urban and diverse areas like SF, with highly eclectic styles and fashions.  A terrorist suspect may more than likely try to blend in with the general population to avoid being noticed.  Anything left behind should be suspect, e.g., parcels, bags or containers.  Are they making any noise, leaking fluids, emitting unusual smells.  May be nothing, but better to be safe than sorry.

General rule:  If you see something, say something.  Try to find the nearest police officer or transit authority/driver of the vehicle.  In a BART train, you can use the intercom at the end of the car to report your concerns.  It’s advisable to move to another car away from the suspicious package to make contact with the authorities.  Cell phone signals and radio transmissions have been known to set off certain explosive device ignition systems.  They could also interfere with emergency equipment.  If you can do a face to face, that is highly recommended.  Be prepared to give your exact location and the individual number of the Transit car and location of the suspicious package.

It is not recommended to leave an underground subway vehicle or streetcar.  Move to the farthest point away from the suspected object.  Always wait for instructions or assistance by transit employees or rescue/public safety personnel.  They will direct you as to the best actions to take.  But if you must evacuate, extreme caution must be taken to avoid the high voltage electrical systems that power most subway systems and are EXTREMELY dangerous.

In the event of an emergency, remain calm at all times and follow directions of transit and rescue personnel.  Remember if it is a terrorist attack, their primary goal is to cause fear and panic.  If you are instructed to evacuate, take your belongings.  Leave your bicycle behind.  Assist those confined to wheelchairs, as best as you can.  Leave the wheelchair behind.  Team effort is the best method to coordinate and assist those unable to walk on their own in need of evacuation.  If you are traveling with others, stay together.  It is easy to get lost in the shuffle, especially in locations with large crowds.

If you can assist the injured to evacuate to safety without harm to yourself, then move them away with you to a safer location.  Do not put yourself in harm’s way.  Your priority is to tend to your own safety.  It is important to keep your personal group together, whether it be your family members or friends, to make sure you stay safe and reduce further risks.

Following the arrival of the public safety personnel, their response to the incident will provide you with more instructions if specific actions are needed to deal with the emergency.  The emergency dispatcher on the other end of the 9-1-1 call will also provide you with specialized instructions if you happen to be the caller and can connect with an Emergency Communications Center.

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