By Matt Wilson, @wilsonstcomms

“Situational awareness” is critical around railroad tracks, but the words take on more weight when responding to a dangerous incident in an already dangerous and dynamic environment.

This lesson was a large part of the Operation RAILSAFE training I attended earlier this month in San Jose with a few dozen folks from local fire, law enforcement and rail agencies.

Despite me not being anything remotely close to a cop, sheriff’s deputy, firefighter or special agent, I found myself slipping into their roles during the very enjoyable and informative training program.

Operation RAILSAFE was developed in partnership by the Amtrak Police Department, New York City Police Department and the Transportation Security Administration in May 2010. Of its many goals, training seeks to get folks who respond to very bad situations familiar with one another and the railroad environment.

My agency has a long relationship with Amtrak, as its police department used to patrol the Caltrain corridor up until several years ago. And given how important rail safety is along our corridor, my boss felt it would be important for me to get insight into general safety. The training also showed me how first responders think and approach situations. Thinking through incidents beforehand will help me in my role as a spokesperson to dispense accurate and important information.

Operation RAILSAFEThe 1 ½ day training was a reminder of the importance of meeting people face to face and actually experiencing an environment before an awful situation occurs. I heard repeatedly from our Amtrak instructors that they wanted all of us in the room to recognize names, faces and roles so that if there was a major crisis or incident aboard or near tracks, that it “wouldn’t be the first time we had met.”Amtrak instructors said the rail agency doesn’t have a ton of policing resources to cover its many miles of tracks, so the force relies heavily on partnerships with local law enforcement.

We were doused with lessons on safety around railroad tracks, and encouraged to be good role models there. We were told to preach safety to friends, family and strangers when we witness unsafe behavior around the railroad. (Those cliché wedding, modeling, high school graduation and baby photos on the tracks, for instance!).

The lines burned into my brain now are “always expect a train on any track at any speed, in either direction at any time and without warning” and the “the railroad is unforgiving.”

First responders were also reminded to get familiar with trains and the many nuances they could encounter when responding to a crime scene or incident aboard a train. For instance, cops were encouraged to get familiar with the layouts of trains traveling through their jurisdiction on the off chance they have to search for a suspect on board, or God forbid need a good line of sight to fire their gun. Firefighters were reminded that their ax or other blunt instruments won’t knock out most train windows, and instead would bounce back at them like something out of a Looney Tunes cartoon.

We received lessons on Amtrak and its history, Amtrak police intelligence gathering and sharing, terrorism trends in transportation environments, general safety tips aboard trains and around railroad tracks and strategy for arriving on the scene of a major incident. All of it was valuable, informative and enlightening, but the 75-minute segment on terrorism was gripping.

The second day was reserved for tabletop exercises. We split into three working groups with folks from various agencies holding different roles. I was one of the few non-first responders, so I was assigned the role of Amtrak spokesman. Scenarios focused on suspicious luggage left aboard a moving train and an active shooter at a major transit center. The active shooter scenario, while deadly, was far less complex than the luggage scenario, which involved a fast-moving train, crowded transit stations, and tracking down a witness and suspect aboard the train all while rallying whichever law enforcement agency would be closest to where the train stopped. Even though this all played out slowly through a PowerPoint presentation, there was plenty of perspiration and furrowed brows in the room.

In my role as agency spokesman, I worked with others on crafting accurate and appropriate responses as situations escalated or become ever-more complex. A great discussion was had about the importance of correct and appropriate information in the age of social media, where rumor and innuendo run rampant before agencies can even have a handle on what might really be going on. We had a lively talk about whether the presence of social media requires faster and more frequent responses from agencies, and what the pros and cons are with that strategy.

In the age of remote communication and information gathering, it was a breath of fresh air to be told how important it is to be present and in the moment and to gain experience in the field. As a former journalist who would often refer to himself as a “professional outside observer,” there was something valuable about seeing seasoned police officers get visibly flustered as we talked about escalating hypothetical scenarios where we weighed the positives and negatives of our response. It helped me understand that in dangerous and complex situations, first responders may not have all the answers or even the best answer during fluid situations. This experience will help me do a better job when it comes time to deliver the public credible, clear and accurate information.

Above all the group was enjoyable to be around and I could feel the sort of camaraderie cops and firemen have within their respective departments. I also had no idea cops enjoyed taking some good-natured jabs at firemen! How long has this friendly rivalry been going on?

We were told this was the 36th training event held throughout the nation, and more than 900 participants from various agencies participated. Training moves on to Reno, Nevada in April.

Oh, and for folks who love long, creative and well-crafted acronyms, RAILSAFE stands for Regional Alliance Including Local, State and Federal Efforts.

Matt Wilson is a public affairs specialist with the San Mateo County Transit District, which manages Caltrain commuter rail service and SamTrans buses.

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