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Posts in Category: Safety

Bicycle Bus Community METRO Green Line Safety Transit Police

Transit Police on board and on bike 

| Monday, May 05, 2014 12:00:00 AM

The Metro Transit Police Department's Bike Patrol poses during a training at Fort Snelling.When Sgt. Leo Castro is on patrol in St. Paul, he doesn’t need to roll down the window to get fresh air.

That’s because he’s clipped into the pedals of a Cannondale mountain bike, traveling the streets on a pair of 26-inch wheels to monitor busy boarding locations and respond when needed.

Castro and other Metro Transit Police Department officers will be getting even more time in the open air when the METRO Green Line begins service on June 14.

Because the light-rail line runs through two downtowns, the University of Minnesota and a busy commercial corridor, Transit Police will be riding bikes, patrolling on foot and spending time aboard buses and trains so they can have more mobility and respond as quickly as possible.

“As a bike officer, we can get to certain areas where a squad car can’t go and get there a lot more quickly,” Castro said. “Even in rush hour we can cover three or four blocks in a couple of minutes.”

In 2010, Castro became the first Metro Transit police officer to get trained and certified as a bike patrol officer. Today, he leads a unit of 16 officers who split time between their bikes and a squad car. Bike officers will also load their bikes on bus racks and bring them on trains while doing fare checks and other on-board policing.

As part of their basic training, bike officers are taught how to ride up and down stairs, dismount and make arrests and navigate safely through traffic and large crowds. Transit Police also recently participated in “Bike Rapid Response” training with the Minneapolis Police Department to learn how bikes can be used to calm crowds during large events, such as the MLB All-Star Game.

Officer Daniel Wallace is part of the department’s newest class of bike officers and comes with two years of previous experience patrolling the Mall of America by bike. Wallace said one of the biggest challenges to patrolling on a bike is carrying all of the gear. A “duty belt” with a radio and other equipment weighs around 30 pounds.

“Once you learn how to ride you never forget,” Wallace said. “But doing it with all the equipment is a little more of a challenge.”

Bike patrols primarily take place in the spring and summer, but officers aren't afraid to go out in difficult weather conditions, including ice, snow and rain.

While physically demanding, Officer Kelly Franco sought a spot on the bike unit because it offered variety and a unique opportunity to interact more with the public.

“When you’re in a squad car, the majority of the time you’re going from call to call,” she said. “But when you’re on bike patrol you’re mingling and interacting with people and other bike riders so you get to see a different perspective.”

In his experience on the street, Castro said being on a bike has allowed him to quickly identify and apprehend suspects, respond to medical emergencies and generally be more proactive about quality of life issues such as loitering.

Being on a bike has also been a great way to combine his interest in biking with his job and public service, said Castro, the department’s 2010 Officer of the Year.

“I’m passionate about bikes, but I’m equally passionate about community-oriented policing,” he said. “Really, that’s what this is all about.”

    > Metro Transit Police Department

    > For Transit Police K-9s, all work and a little play

Community Light Rail METRO Blue Line METRO Green Line Safety Transit Police

For Transit Police K-9s, all work and a little play 

| Thursday, January 30, 2014 12:00:00 AM

K-9 Handler Alex Johannes tucked a pound of ammonium nitrate into a canister, sealed the lid and spanned the small conference room. Spotting a small cardboard box in the corner, Johannes concealed the canister and exited the room.

Minutes later, he and his trained bomb-sniffing dog Merle walked back through the door. After 30 seconds of scouring, the three-year-old black lab zeroed in on the box and took a seat. His work here was done.

Johannes and Merle are one of four K-9-officer duos at the Metro Transit Police Department. The officers and K-9s spend their days at busy boarding areas as well as light-rail and Northstar trains proactively searching for potential explosives. The unit also works closely with regional partners and during large events such as Twins and Vikings games.

The good news: the dogs haven’t caught a whiff of anything suspect since Metro Transit’s K-9 unit was created in 2007.

“It’s a huge responsibility so our hope is that he (Merle) would respond just the way he did today,” said Johannes, a former TSA agent who joined Transit Police four years ago.

Like the other K-9 handlers, Johannes said he was drawn to the idea of working with a dog because of the special bond that can be developed. The officers spend their entire days with the animals and keep them at home during their off hours.

Johannes has spent the last 14 months with Merle and said he has grown to see him as another member of his family. It helps that the two share a similar enthusiasm for their work.

“They try to match personalities and we’re a pretty good fit,” Johannes said. “Merle and I are both high drive, high energy.”

Officer Joshua Scharber said he and his K-9 partner Rusty, the newest members of the K-9 unit, have also grown close. “I’ve always wanted to be a part of a K9 unit,” Scharber said. “It’s just the bond you create – you can’t find that with a regular officer.”

Like Merle, all of the K-9s regularly test their skills by sniffing for explosive ingredients hidden by their handlers, typically at Metro Transit facilities. Once found, the specially-trained labs are rewarded with a chew toy and affection.

The furry hedgehog and other toys at officers’ disposal seem to offer more than enough motivation.

“When I say ‘Are you ready to go to work,’ he’s already in the car,” said Steve Schoephoerster, the longest tenured member of the K-9 unit.

While the K-9 unit hasn’t uncovered any active threats, they’ve responded to several unattended or suspicious packages. The unit works hand-in-hand with area bomb squads, which are equipped to disable bombs if anything is found.

While the risk is low, K-9 officer Scott Tinucci said the unit plays an important role in deterring activity simply by being out in the field and remaining visible. And if anything ever were to occur, he said, he and his two- and four-legged partners are ready.

“People will say the reward is when you find something, but the real reward is when you do a sweep and you don’t find anything and can say it’s all clear,” said Tinucci, who partners with the unit’s only female, Izzy.

“The bottom line is you hope you never have to use it but all it takes is one find and how many people have you saved?”

Metro Transit’s K-9 Unit

    Alex Johannes and Merle (black lab, male)                Scott Tinucci and Izzy (yellow lab, female)

   Joshua Scharber and Rusty (brown lab, male)      Steve Schoephoerster and Cooper (black lab, male)      

Bus Community Minneapolis Safety

When disaster strikes, buses serve as shelter 

| Friday, January 03, 2014 12:00:00 AM

In 2013, Metro Transit dispatched more than seventy buses throughout the Twin Cities in support of emergency responses to fires, gas leaks and other hazardous situations. Buses provide climate-controlled shelter and comfort for the displaced and also can be used as staging or relief areas for emergency response teams. 

On Jan. 1, at the request of the Minneapolis Fire Department, Metro Transit dispatched buses to house fire fighters and victims of a devastating explosion and blaze in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis. Metro Transit Police also assisted at the scene.

In past years, buses have been on-scene to assist during events such as powerful storms in north Minneapolis and Hugo as well as the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge.

“In these types of situations, having a safe place to take shelter is immensely important,” said Vince Pellegrin, Metro Transit’s Chief Operating Officer and a former volunteer fire fighter. “We’re happy we can work side-by-side with emergency responders to provide this service to our community.”

Bus Express Bus Safety

Transit Supervisor helps keep buses on the move 

| Thursday, December 19, 2013 1:30:00 PM

As a New Hope police officer, Debra Downing patrolled an area of just five square miles. As one of Metro Transit’s Transit Supervisors, she has a little more territory to cover.

While she is based at East Metro Garage in St. Paul, Downing is an “at large” supervisor who travels Metro Transit’s entire 907-square-mile service area supporting bus drivers as they deal with detours, weather and other issues that interrupt normal operations.

“That’s why this job sounded so intriguing,” Downing said recently. “The thought of this huge area, it was like, ‘This is awesome.’”

After 26 years at the New Hope Police Department, Downing moved into the Transit Supervisor role full-time in 2006. Though she suddenly faced a bigger job, she had some idea of what to expect: for 18 years, she worked part-time riding and policing buses for Metro Transit.

While she no longer carries a badge, Downing says there are elements of police work that have carried over into her supervisor role. Metro Transit’s 27 Transit Supervisors respond along with police when operators are assaulted, a bus is involved in a collision or when streets are unexpectedly closed.

Supervisors also help manage transportation in and around major events like the Twin Cities Marathon and St. Paul Winter Carnival.

This summer, at the height of construction season, there were 288 active detours that supervisors helped bus drivers and transit customers navigate around. Supervisors work with public works and city staff to find the best alternative, and then communicate that to operators and customers.

“You really have to be able to think on your feet and sort it out,” Downing said from her supervisor’s vehicle, outfitted with a laptop that allows her to track bus activity in real time. “Figuring it out on the fly – that’s what’s fun for me.”

One of the biggest similarities between being an officer and being a Transit Supervisor is the need to respond quickly, Downing said.

Metro Transit helps respond to fires or other disasters where people are displaced, providing buses that serve not just as transportation but as mobile warming stations. In 2008, Downing was among a group that responded when tornados hit Hugo.

Supervisors’ quick reflexes also kick in when winter weather strikes. Amid the first large snowfall of the winter, Downing was called to the corner of Camelot Street and California Avenue, in St. Paul, where a bus couldn’t get up a slippery hill. Downing spread sand behind each of the rear tires and the bus was quickly on its way.

Downing responded similarly throughout the night and knows she’ll be spending plenty of time in and around St. Paul this winter. The east metro’s hilly terrain makes it harder for buses to get around.

“Obviously, with weather like this we’re pretty busy, going from call to call,” Downing said.

In their rare quiet moments, Transit Supervisors observe operators and make notes about how buses are performing compared to their schedules. If a bus is consistently behind, supervisors will identify the issues causing the delay and work with operators and schedule planners to come up with fixes.

“We’ll counsel and work with them (operators) to figure out what they could do differently,” Downing said. “If there’s anything we can do to make their job easier – that’s what we’re here to do.”

Downing works 10-hour shifts, from 3 p.m. to 1 a.m. During rush hour, there are usually around 10 supervisors on the street. Overnight and midday, the number tapers off.

Like Downing, some Transit Supervisors come from law enforcement backgrounds. Others are former bus drivers or have worked at Metro Transit’s Transit Information Center, where they build an understanding of transit.

Lisa Johnson, who works with Transit Supervisors as the Assistant Director of Field Operations, said it's not easy defining the job of Transit Supervisors like Downing because "they do everything" and are involved in "every aspect of our business."

While one of the most challenging positions within Metro Transit, Johnson said it can also be one of the most rewarding.

"It is rare to be in a position to help anywhere from the one individual, be it an operator or customer, all the way up to entire communities such as they did during the 35W bridge collapse," she said. "I’m certain that everyone of them will say they love their job and have fun every day at work."

Bus METRO Green Line Rider Information Safety University of Minnesota

When the rubber hits the tracks 

| Wednesday, November 06, 2013 3:00:00 PM

As Metro Transit bus operator Byron Phillips crossed Church Street and continued east on Washington Avenue, he did something he’d never done before. He steered the 40-foot bus to his left and drove straight onto the METRO Green Line’s light rail tracks.

Phillips’ move will be repeated by some 1,500 bus operators in the coming weeks as they are trained ahead of the opening of the Washington Avenue Transit/Pedestrian Mall, which cuts through a busy commercial area on the University of Minnesota campus. Bus drivers for the U of M’s Campus Connector, SouthWest Transit and Minnesota Valley Transit Authority are receiving similar training.

Set to open on Dec. 7, the Transit/Pedestrian Mall puts buses and light-rail trains on the METRO Green Line on the same part of the street between Walnut and Church streets. Lanes for bicyclists and emergency vehicles sit on the north and south sides of the three-block area while the Green Line’s East Bank Station and other pedestrian amenities sit in the middle of the corridor.

Facing this new environment for the first time, Phillips was unsure how to react. But after making a pass through the area he said he thought it would be easy to get used to driving on the tracks.

“At first I was thinking ‘Oh boy,’ but it’s not that bad,” he said after moving slowly through the corridor with an instructor and two other operators in training. “There’s nothing jolty or bumpy about the ride at all.”

For now, operators are training in a fenced-off environment without trains. But activity on the Transit/Pedestrian Mall will pick up when buses return later this year and trains begin running in mid-2014.

Around 225 Green Line trains are expected to pass through the area every day. Another 20 bus routes will meanwhile make around 1,200 trips down the Transit/Pedestrian Mall each weekday. The level of bus service is consistent with activity before the Transit/Pedestrian Mall was closed in mid-2011 for Green Line construction.

Signals will be used to manage bus and train movements, keeping them at least 40 feet apart at all times. There will be no bus stops between Church and Walnut streets. Customers will board at Coffman Memorial Union, just west of Church Street, and at Oak Street on the east end.  

Bus drivers are also being trained to travel at speeds of no more than 15 miles per hour and to communicate with supervisors to determine how to proceed if an emergency vehicle enters the area.

Special street markings will be used to guide bicyclists crossing at intersections while pedestrian traffic will be directed to designated sidewalks.

“For a bus driver it’s a pretty easy maneuver: you make a lane change to the left to get on and a lane change to the right to get off,” said Dan Stoffer, assistant manager of training for Metro Transit. “What makes it more challenging is just all of the other things going on around you.”

Metro Transit’s operators began training on the Transit/Pedestrian Mall Oct. 13 and are driving on the tracks for an hour each morning and afternoon, depending on the construction schedule. The plan is to have all Metro Transit operators certified by the end of the year.

Similar to certifications for operating on the Marq2 corridor and the I-35W and 46th Street Station, the training comes in addition to regular education trainers routinely go through.

Denny Johnson, an instructor leading the driver training, said he’s been encouraged by what he’s seen so far. While the opening of the Green Line is exciting, he believes the novelty of buses traveling on train tracks will diminish as more buses and trains begin using the Transit/Pedestrian Mall.

Similar operations are in effect in cities around the world, and peer regions of the Twin Cities including Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Sacramento and Seattle. Johnson also compared the Transit/Pedestrian Mall to Nicollet Mall, a transit-only corridor that fills with pedestrians on summer days with farmer's markets.  

“We're not used to the visuals but this isn't really all that different from Nicollet Mall,” he said. "If all stay aware and operate professionally, we can do this well and without incident."

> Washington Avenue Transit/Pedestrian Mall

> Buses return to Washington Avenue Dec. 7

> Using ‘Keys’ to put safety first

> Close call on the METRO Blue Line provides safety reminder

> Metro Transit safety and security efforts win industry accolades

Photo: Denny Johnson, instructor, drives east on the Washington Avenue Transit/Pedestrian Mall during recent training. Below right, a bus travels east on the Transit/Pedestrian Mall during a training exercise.  

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