Thursday, March 27, 2008

Observation About the Stoughton Commuter Rail Accident

Early on in my career, I worked for the Massachusetts Port Authority, also known as Massport. Along with running Boston's Logan International Airport, Massport is responsible for operating Hanscom Airfield, the Tobin Bridge, and the Boston Seaport.

Since Massport is a quasi-public entity, the authority faces both state and federal mandated regulations. However, Massport does try (or at least did try while I worked there in the early '90s) to self-regulate itself.

One operation the authority took seriously (when I worked there) was a yearly exercise at Logan International Airport. I'll call this the "what if" exercise. One weekend each year, Massport would run through various disaster scenarios. Since I left Massport long ago, I have no idea if this is something that the authority still does. I'm only sharing my recollections from when I worked there.

Massport would stage a plane crash, much in the same way hospital ER rooms sometimes practice different scenarios, to prepare staff in how to handle a sudden disaster - like a plane crash. Different entities across Massport - such as the Logan Fire Station, Mass State Police (who are on-staff at Logan), EMTs, Airport Staff, Communications/Public Affiars, etc., would run through different disaster scenarios. Employees used to volunteer to participate - people would be tagged for different injuries so EMTs and other professionals could determine triage assignments. Everyone who participated knew that this recreation wasn't anywhere similar to an actual plane crash, but it helped people know what to do if an accident happened. Massport would work with local hospitals and with local safety officials to "coordinate" efforts since moving severely injured people is usually a race against time. The authority would also recreate these scenarios because an accident at the airport directly impacts inbound/outbound flights. So you're trying to attend to both the accident and the larger transportation system.

I have no idea if the MBTA/MBCR/CSX or local towns who have commuter rail or transit trains running through the towns run any kind of similar recreation. From the first-hand accounts published yesterday on Universal Hub (The MBCR can communicate with riders, sort of and MBCR response confused and confusing) , it seems like if there are any recreations, they may be limited.

I truly feel for the front-line MBTA/MBCR employees. Disaster-preparation drills are for the benefit of employees. It really does seem as though the senior management of the MBTA and MBCR are disconnected from their front-line employees. Tuesday night must have been very stressful - dealing with thousands of stranded commuters cannot be a fun experience.

In a post 9/11 world, it seems bizarre that local towns, our transit authorities, and the state don't have a disaster plan on hand. Obviously Tuesday's accident was just that - an accident. Unfortunately, the accident occurred during rush hour, so the impact was a lot harder than if the accident occurred during non-peak hours.

When something happens, communication is usually the most difficult aspect of a situation.

Maybe this accident can be used as a scenario for local cities and towns to communicate with the MBTA/MBCR/CSX/Amtrak or whoever needs to know. Because in reading some of the news accounts, it seems like the local 911 system wasn't sure who to call.

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