Time limits on grant funding have left several organizations within the US public transportation sector unable to continue to increase safety procedures and emergency preparedness across public transit systems.
Panelists spoke Tuesday at a field hearing held in New Jersey by the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response and Communications to address concerns surrounding grant requirements for major surface transportation systems and to discuss the importance of increasing the safety of surface transportation systems, specifically in the New York and New Jersey areas.
US surface transportation systems serve over 28 million riders daily and over 10 billion riders annually. Surface transportation includes mass transit systems, pipelines, passenger and freight railroads, motor carrier operators, highways and maritime facilities.
Training emergency responders to respond to attacks on these systems is increasingly important to counter potential threats posed by terrorists, active shooters and natural disasters.
Richard Sposa, Chief of EMS Operations at Jersey City Medical Center and RWJBarnabas Health, testified that funding from grants has increased the capability of Emergency Medical Services and hospitals to respond to mass casualty events, pandemic events and acts of terrorism.
“We are cognizant of the limited resources available and the difficult decisions that you must make in Congress on how to allocate resources,” Sposa said. “However, because of the changing landscape, we are hopeful that the recent trend to reduce homeland security grants, is reversed.”
Subcommittee Chairman Dan Donovan (R-NY) cited the March 2016 terrorist attacks in Brussels–which left 32 dead in a metro station and international airport–as an example of the increasing need for public transportation safety procedures and enhanced first responder training in the United States.
“Since 2002, authorities have thwarted six terrorist plots against mass transit systems in the United States,” Donovan said. “Alarmingly, five out of those six plots were against systems serving the New York metropolitan region.”
Surface transportation system safety protocol is most often the responsibility of system owners and operators, unlike the aviation sector, which is heavily federally regulated.
Thomas Belfiore, Chief Security Officer of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, said the timeline for grant funding prohibits the ability to create and implement large scale projects that would increase public transportation safety.
Public awareness campaigns and security equipment such as cameras are often funded by grants. These grants are awarded with timelines for implementation preventing organizations from executing larger scale planning and projects.
Belfiore said the period of performance for grants is currently three years and would be more effective if increased to five years to allow industry officials to create more effective security projects.
“A critical resource is the federal grant funding program. This funding source is essential to help us continue to protect our facilities from evolving threats,” Belfiore said.
Furthermore, Director of the Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security of Jersey City, New Jersey Sgt. W. Greg Kierce said surface transportation cannot be protected in the same way commercial aviation is protected due to the need to keep costs low and accessibility and convenience high.
“The deployment of metal detectors, X-ray machines, explosive sniffers, and armed guards, which have become features of the landscape at airports, cannot be transferred easily to subway stations or bus stops,” Kierce said. “The delays would be enormous and the costs prohibitive – public transportation would effectively be shut down.”
In order to ensure passenger safety without prohibiting access, many public transportation systems encourage passenger involvement through public awareness campaigns.
Director of the Surface Division of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Sonya Proctor said TSA works to analyze funding opportunities from the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to ensure organizations with the greatest need receive grants.
TSA has implemented campaigns supported through DHS funding, such as the If You See Something Say Something campaign. The campaign encourages civilians to reach out to local law enforcement if they encounter suspicious activity.
Similarly, TSA’s Not On My Watch program is an awareness campaign designed to make employees of surface transportation systems more cognizant of threats targeting the transportation community.
“TSA also works with industry to identify emerging security training needs, develop new training modules, and refresh existing training,” Proctor explained.