Protecting Atlanta commuters: An inside look at MARTA's security operations

Serving a population of 1.7 million in the City of Atlanta, as well as surrounding municipalities within Fulton and DeKalb counties, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) is the ninth largest transit system in the U.S. With more than 500 buses covering 1,000 route miles per day and over 330 rail cars taking commuters throughout a nearly 48-mile long rail system, MARTA has a substantial geographic footprint in the city and, subsequently, a wide range of security challenges. The transit agency granted members of the media an inside look at its police communications and emergency operations center this week as part of a tour ahead of ASIS 2014, which is scheduled to take place in Atlanta between Sept. 29 and Oct. 2.

According to Monty Montgomery, MARTA’s Emergency Preparedness Unit Coordinator, the transit agency and its officers have to be prepared to deal with everything from fare evasion to incidents of terrorism, which they are routinely trained and audited on by a combination of local, state and federal agencies. “We’re audited very extensively with respect to our security programs,” he said.

Montgomery said that MARTA is currently in the process of planning its next full-scale security training exercise, which the transit authority is required to do annually along with one tabletop exercise. Montgomery said that the Atlanta Police Department, Department of Homeland Security and Federal Bureau of Investigation will also take part in the full-scale exercise. Last year, MARTA conducted an active shooter training scenario at one of its rail stations in the city.

Last year, MARTA was recognized by TSA Administrator John Pistole for earning the agency’s highest rating of “Gold Standard” on their most recent Baseline Assessments for Security Enhancement (BASE) for their dedication to building a strong security program.

While MARTA faces many of the same security issues that other large organizations or government agencies do, there are things unique to the transit environment that they have to take into account and train for. “On some level a crime is a crime… but in the transit industry, there are things like 750 volts running down the third rail,” explained Montgomery.

According to Montgomery, MARTA owns about 1,200 surveillance cameras, which they recently decided to share with the APD’s Video Integration Center that ties together thousands of public and private cameras across the city. Montgomery said that all of their buses and paratransit vehicles are equipped with cameras on the interior and exterior of the vehicles. MARTA is also in the process of installing cameras on all of their rail cars.

The installation of cameras has yielded positive results on many fronts for MARTA. Not only have assaults on bus drivers come down since they were implemented, but it has also proven to be an invaluable tool in reducing legal claims. “The legal department has seen a precipitous drop in claims,” Montgomery added.

Drivers were initially reluctant to having the cameras, which also incorporate audio recording capabilities, onboard buses over concerns that the transit agency would be eavesdropping on them, but those fears have since been relieved given the drop in assaults. All of MARTA’s bus cameras are analog; however, they use encoders to convert the footage into a digital format which is stored locally on the bus. When buses get within a certain distance of the agency’s garages, Montgomery said the video will automatically begin to upload to their network.        

Although there was a lot of legal wrangling regarding the memorandum of understanding (MOU) that MARTA entered into with APD to share its camera assets with the city, Montgomery said that is has enabled an incredible amount interagency cooperation.  For example, if a crime happens in Centennial Olympic Park downtown and police see the potential perpetrator walking towards the MARTA rail station near Philips Arena and the Georgia Dome, Atlanta police can now pull up the transit system’s cameras to aid them in tracking and apprehending the suspect. The reverse is also true of a crime that happens on MARTA property when officers need to track a suspect using the city’s cameras.

“That’s some of the coordination we’ve been able to have through this MOU with Atlanta,” Montgomery added.

The transit agency is currently in the process of building a new Integrated Operations Center (IOC) and Emergency Operations Center (EOC), which will bring together operations and security for MARTA’s bus, rail and paratransit services. The new facility will also be able to accommodate personnel from some of the aforementioned law enforcement agencies in the event of an emergency.

Montgomery provided members of the media with a tour of the agency’s current EOC, which he said has two main functions during an emergency: provide information and resources to mitigate the effects of the event and to maintain a level of service during whatever the emergency may be.  MARTA also has its own bomb squad, explosive-sniffing K9 units and SWAT team which they refer to as their Special Operations Response Team (SORT).

As with many other public and private entities in Georgia, MARTA is getting prepared to deal with what has been dubbed as the state’s “guns everywhere” law, which goes into effect on July 1. The law allows licensed gun owners to carry their weapons into school zones, bars, churches and some government buildings unless it is expressly prohibited by these organizations. But perhaps the most challenging part of the legislation for Marta, according to Montgomery, is a provision that prevents law enforcement from detaining someone observed to be in possession of a firearm for the sole purpose of determining whether or not they have a concealed carry permit.

Montgomery said that this creates a problem for officers when it comes determining when they can or cannot engage someone who they suspect is carrying a weapon. As a result, MARTA will be training all of its officers to make sure that they’re aware of the changes with the law and its impact on them moving forward.

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