Transit has a role in emergency evacuations

By Zane Ewton

During hurricanes, tornadoes or other catastrophic events, often the first sight evacuees see is a fleet of motorcoaches prepared to transport them to safety. Motorcoach companies have become a natural component in safe and reliable evacuation services.

Motorcoaches are such a good fit in evacuation procedures because the equipment is primed to transport many people over long distances and on short notice says United Motorcoach Association president and CEO Victor Parra.

However, rarely does the evening news feature a transit bus rushing to an emergency scene. The work transit does is often behind the scenes and in support of paramedics and fire fighters. Visible or not, transit agencies do have the responsibility to embrace a leadership role in emergency preparation efforts.

For example, the Transit Authority of Northern Kentucky (TANK) in collaboration with the Northern Kentucky Emergency Planning Committee is taking a proactive approach to emergency preparedness with its Be Prepared Bus.

TANK donated the space for the message on a bus that will rotate through all of the agency’s routes over the next year. Three years in the making, the bus has drawn TANK and emergency planning officials closer. TANK spokesperson Gina Douthat says the agency has two representatives that work on a regular basis with the local emergency planning committee. TANK also is involved in all evacuation and homeland security drills and training.

This approach mirrors the recommendations made in a recent study conducted by the Transportation Research Board. The study, focused on transit’s role in emergency procedures, was vague in its recommendations but nailed its premise that transit has a crucial role in the planning and response to emergency situations.

According to the report – “Transit can play a vital role in an emergency evacuation, as demonstrated by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when transit shuttled passengers out of Lower Manhattan and rushed employees, buses and equipment to the World Trade Center site to support emergency responders. In 2005, transit could have played an important role in New Orleans in advance of Hurricane Katrina but failed to do so when few drivers reported to work, transit equipment proved inadequate and was left unprotected, and communications and incident command were nonexistent.”

One concern before transit can roll in evacuation services is that this has largely been the domain of charter companies. However the Transit Charter Rule includes two exceptions for emergency situations.

The emergency preparedness exception allows transit agencies to transport their employees, employees of other transit systems, management officials, contractors, prospective contractors, or official guests for emergency preparedness planning and operations. The emergency response exception allows transit agencies to respond to emergency situations, whether declared by federal, state, or local officials, or take immediate actions necessary prior to a formal declaration for the first 45 days of the emergency situation.

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) recommended that the FTA not even consider emergency services subject to the charter bus rule. Eron Shosteck, spokesperson for the American Bus Association (ABA) agreed that in emergency situations, the primary concern is the safe evacuation of all individuals.

Unique role

Transit has a unique role to play in evacuating people without their own vehicles and special needs such as the disabled, the elderly and the medically homebound in an emergency.

Unfortunately the study conducted by TRB indicated special needs groups are often inadequately addressed in most local emergency plans and evacuation needs often exceed limited transit resources.

After reviewing 38 urban areas’ emergency response and evacuation plans, the study committee found that transit has a larger role to play in each of the four elements that make up an emergency response plan. The elements are mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery.  The committee then conducted in-depth case studies of Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, New York City and Tampa, FL.  The five case studies illustrate the roles transit could play in an evacuation, including transporting those without a car to area shelters or outside the affected area, bringing emergency responders and equipment to emergency incident sites, returning evacuees to their original destinations and restoring service as quickly as possible.

The capacity of a transit system to assist depends on the nature of the incident and its location. Operations are hindered by unavailability of drivers and lack of equipment, especially at off-peak times. During peak periods, congestion impedes travel in many urban areas even in normal conditions.  Evacuating special needs populations includes extra challenges that require collaboration with social service agencies to first identify groups that need assistance, and commit to a targeted public information campaign and sheltering strategy, such as the Be Prepared campaign by TANK.