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Scary As Hell

May 14, 2007

SEPTA TrainLast night we had a bit of a scare in the Jazz household. A member of my family was involved in a commuter train crash. Luckily she wasn’t one of those seriously hurt, but her description of the scene both something I’ve been lulled into expecting from my work, yet still scared the hell out of me.

We all know about the terrible state of our underground communication systems, and are certainly spending the money to fix the problem. One day, and definitely not soon enough, we’ll have truly interoperable emergency radio systems for first responders. Good people are throwing good money at a problem, and it’s only a matter of time before a workable solution is implemented.

I am, however, an advocate for communicating in an emergency to the public as part of an emergency communication plan. I believe that an effective plan to alert, communicate with and reassure the public will do as much to save lives in an emergency as will other, more responder-based efforts. That, unfortunately, still seems to be an afterthought in disaster and emergency planning.

The Regional Rail trains, basically light commuter trains, are serviced by “conductors.” These men and women walk from car to car after every stop collecting tickets and fares and announcing upcoming stops. It stands to reason that these folks are on their feet and are in the most danger of getting seriously hurt in the event of an accident. They are also tasked with directing commuters in case of an emergency. You see the disconnect here? After the two trains collided, most, if not all, of the conductors were thrown violently into seats, walls and doors. The conductor nearest to my family member was seriously hurt – so much so that medical personnel on the train focused exclusively on him and concentrated wholly on stabilizing his vital signs. In that moment, there was no one in charge. If panic had set in, who knows what would have happened. There was, and is, simply no plan in place to settle the passengers or order an orderly. Normally, I’d complain if there was just a pre-recorded message telling everyone to stay calm and let emergency personnel guide you from the train; but even this inadequate mechanism was not available. Yesterday, it was lucky that the lights stayed lit and cool heads prevailed. But we certainly cannot always count on that.

Another thing that struck me was that immediately after the accident, I got a phone call reporting that my family member was alright, but that they had crashed. Cell phone reception in tunnels is normally patchy at best, and seemingly only worked for one cell phone provider in this instance. Luckily we were on the right system, and I could haltingly hear the relatively good news. But then she passed her phone around to folks who had been dialing in frustration. Much like the BlackBerry incident a few weeks ago, we’ve come to depend on our communication devices, and cell phones are the backbone of that. To be cut off is to panic, to worry. As we’re extending the range of our emergency radio system into the tunnels, thought should be given toward extending the same courtesy to citizens. A cell phone with a signal underground could server as a beacon for responders, or a way to reassure a terrified husband.

Finally, I cannot lay blame solely on SEPTA and emergency planners. Too many people are simply unprepared to deal with any deviation from the everyday norm. We learned that lesson again yesterday went the cell phone being passed around began to run out of batteries. Our family is relatively prepared for emergencies, but we’ve not yet put portable battery-operated cell chargers onto our person yet. That changed last night.

I, for one, thank my lucky stars that yesterday was a small incident, and I wish the very best to those folks who did sustain injury in the crash. But this should serve as a learning opportunity for all of us, commuters, planners and organizations.

UPDATE: The Philadelphia Inquirer has published a follow up article that raises the point that I do above:

Some passengers complained about the lack of communications from SEPTA crews on the trains after the collision.

Brian Matthews, 39, of Philadelphia, said no announcements were made on the R6.

“That’s a situation ripe for panic,” he said.

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