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BART Fire Spotlights Need for Better Emergency Planning, By: Riya Bhattacharjee

Tuesday March 14, 2006

By Riya Bhattacharjee 


“We can’t say anything. We haven’t received any recent updates from the control office.” 

My heart sank at the control officer’s words when I asked her about the next outbound Richmond train scheduled to leave the 24th and Mission Street BART station last Tuesday morning. 

I had a deadline in two hours and the only information available was that there had been a trash fire on the BART tracks right below San Francisco’s Market Street that morning, causing all services to the East Bay to be closed. 

Standing 12 stations away from the place where I was supposed to have been an hour ago, I felt I was not in another city but in another country. 

And like thousands of others who had been stranded there that morning, I panicked. 

Panic is exactly what BART commuters are discouraged from doing during emergency situations, says BART Chief of Police Gary Gee.  

In this case, passengers began pushing their way to the back of the Pittsburg Bay Point-bound train, jumping over seats, prying open a door, and trying to evacuate while the train operator was still walking over to the rear cab. After the power on the train was shut down, the remaining passengers were asked to evacuate. Reportedly, the operator’s exact words to them were: “A couple of fools have decided to jump off the train, so now we’re all going to have to evacuate.” Once the doors opened, the brakes stopped moving, making it impossible to drive the train. 

Had it been a terrorist attack, the situation could have been fatal.  

Chief Gary Gee agrees. “We cannot stress enough how important it is for passengers to follow instructions given by train operators or BART officials instead of taking matters into their own hands.” 

However, Chief Gee acknowledged that there had been a communication breach in certain stations on Tuesday morning which left many people confused. “During chaotic situations such as these, communication often suffers a setback,” he told the Daily Planet. “Mass transit systems like the BART definitely need to be concerned about this. Thursday’s fire was a good lesson learned.”  

The chief added that officials are often ordered to give passengers minimal information, as some passengers just keep on asking for more, leading to further confusion. 

According to a testimony on “Enhancing Emergency Preparedness in California” provided by Michael A. Wermuth (a senior policy Analyst at Rand Corp.) to the California Little Hoover Commission on Jan. 26, “establishing a comprehensive public information system” is an important managerial strategy for excellence in emergency preparedness. The report states: 

“Conventional wisdom has been that governments cannot be open with citizens about the threats they face, because such activities may cause heightened fear. Practical experience has taught that the more informed citizens are prior to a disaster, the less likely they are to panic and the closer they will listen to and trust government pronouncements about actions to be taken. This is specially true in the event of a biological incident—natural or intentionally perpetrated. Programs should be expanded to include more comprehensive public information and education before, during and after an incident, and should be exercised for refinement.” 

Chief Gee further explained that in case of a major emergency, such as a bomb or shooting terrorist threat, the first step would be to close down all the 43 BART stations. “There is no one formula that applies to all situations,” he said. “First we would need to do a systemwide evacuation, then our canine patrols would be brought in to do a sweep. We are definitely on the radar for an attack. It is not a matter of if but when.”  

It would, however, take a very severe situation to bring the SWAT Team in. When asked if BART faced a threat from terrorist hijacking, Chief Gee said it was possible but not too likely. “The driver does not control the speed of the train. The actual speed is controlled from a central place. But yes, there could be someone with a gun giving orders to the driver while attempting a hijack.”  

BART recently hired Aaron Cohen, a former member of the Israeli Defense Forces Special Forces Counterterrorist Unit, to train members of the BART SWAT Team on how to tackle suicide bombers without weapons. “The time factor is also very important when bringing in a SWAT Team. Officers are usually at another station or off-duty when an emergency strikes and have to be mobilized immediately,” Chief Gee told the Daily Planet. 

“We had a hostage situation at MacArthur station six months ago when the SWAT Team responded in 10 minutes. Although the situation turned out to be a false alarm, the team was able to make it there that fast because of low traffic at night.” 

BART has also assigned one of its officers to the FBI Special Joint Task Force in Oakland in order to monitor terrorist intelligence. In case of a terrorist attack in New York or even London, BART police use its own intelligence and works with the FBI as well as the Department of Homeland Security to get maximum information and determine a possible shutdown of the entire BART system. BART also holds monthly meetings to discuss security measures and analyze threat levels. 

According to Lt. John Conneely (in-charge of the evening patrol bureau for Zone 2, which includes the North Berkeley, Berkeley, and Ashby BART stations), BART officials are concerned about the safety of all BART stations, irrespective of the threat levels involved. “The stations in Berkeley could very well be a soft target,” he said. “What’s not to say that someone gets up from the North Berkeley BART station or the MacArthur transfer point and makes his way into San Francisco?”  

San Francisco is currently one of the four cities in the United States which is most likely to face a terrorist attack, with the Golden Gate Bridge being a high-visibility target. (According to a RAND Corp. report, the other three targets are New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.) 

Lt. Conneely says that BART police have so far been extremely successful in protecting its stations, and although the system has been identified as a possible target for terrorist attacks, it has not received any credible threats to date. “Commuters might think they are not being watched, but that person discussing the weather next to you could very well be a plain-clothes officer.”  

Lt. Conneely says a minimum of two police officers are present at stations at any given point, but acknowledged that BART does not have the resources to have a full-fledged team present all day long.  

After the 1995 sarin gas attacks in the Tokyo subway, BART closed down its underground bathrooms for fear of possible chemical or biological poisons spreading through the bathroom’s ventilation system. 

What about stations like North Berkeley or Ashby which are located in residential neighborhoods and become deserted by 6 p.m.? 

“Although Berkeley has UC and the Lawrence Labs, we don’t really expect it to be a target. But yes, we could definitely use brighter lights at the Ashby Station,” acknowledged Chief Gee. Bart officials told the Daily Planet that the Berkeley stations have surveillance cameras in the control booths but no device to record activities at the station. 

March 11 marked the second anniversary of the Madrid bombing when 191 people died and 1,741 more were injured by terrorist attacks on Madrid’s commuter trains. Ironically BART shares its birthday—Sept. 11—with the anniversary of the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history.  

“We have 326,500 passengers on weekdays, around 92 million people every year,” said Chief Gee. “Sometimes we also need to rely on the 6,000 or more eyes and ears that use our service everyday. Safety is not something we can achieve alone.”.”ª