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NYC Transit Workers Say They’re Still Not Trained to Deal With Gunfire

More than a year after the subway shooting, a dozen train conductors and operators said a lack of protocols and training leaves MTA employees — and subway riders — in danger.

September 18, 2023 Jennifer Mascia, The City
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This story was originally published by The Trace, a nonprofit newsroom covering gun violence in America. Sign up for its newsletters here.

When a gunman opened fire on a Brooklyn subway car in April 2022, wounding 10 people, Metropolitan Transportation Authority workers were the first to respond. Train conductors and operators rendered aid to the injured and evacuated passengers before the arrival of police and paramedics, then checked each car for additional victims or gunmen. In the following days at a ceremony at City Hall, a transit union official recognized them for “taking charge” and “doing what was necessary to get riders out of danger.”

Six weeks later, a gunman killed a random passenger on a train as it traversed the Manhattan Bridge. After it pulled into the station, a train operator performed chest compressions on the victim in a frantic attempt to save his life while a train conductor radioed for help. The pair was later lauded by their union for “holding down the fort until the NYPD and paramedics arrived.”

But despite the heroic actions of those employees, MTA workers we spoke to say they feel woefully unprepared in the event of a shooting.

In interviews with The Trace, a dozen train conductors and operators characterized the agency’s active shooter training as inadequate, and said a lack of established protocols leave tens of thousands of MTA employees and a billion annual subway riders in danger. In the event of another mass shooting, the transit workers said, the only protocols they’re aware of are to radio headquarters and flee the area. They don’t participate in active shooter drills, they said.

The workers also said they’re not trained to render first aid or perform CPR, nor are they taught stop-the-bleed techniques — something that’s now being offered in some K-12 schools.

“We are not trained to deal with mass shootings,” said Justin, a five-year veteran of the MTA who asked to use a pseudonym because he’s not authorized to speak to the news media. “We’re trained to deal with fires. If it comes down to someone armed with a gun, we’re just spotters with radios.”

Police and media converge on the 36th Street station in Sunset Park. April 13, 2022.
Police and media converge on the 36th Street station in Sunset Park the day after a mass shooting, April 13, 2022. | Jason Scott Jones/THE CITY

It’s a different story in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Atlanta, where transit workers attend drills and receive guidance on what to do if gunfire erupts on their watch. Newly hired transit workers in Philly are given active shooter response guidelines, including “handouts directing behavior” during such events, a spokesperson said. In Atlanta, all new hires get active shooter training, and transit workers attend an annual drill. In Los Angeles, transit workers are included in shooter drills and offered first-aid classes.

In response to a detailed list of questions about active shooter preparedness, the MTA said it requires all employees to undergo security awareness training. The training is a three-hour class led by an active or retired member of law enforcement that includes a film depicting four possible emergency scenarios, one of which is an active shooting. The class is mandatory for all new hires, and current employees take it when they return from a leave of absence.

An agency spokesperson would not clarify how long the active shooter training had been a part of the security awareness training, and did not respond to questions about whether the MTA stages active shooter drills with transit workers.

“There is no higher priority than the safety and security of MTA employees and our customers,” MTA Chief Safety and Security Officer Pat Warren said in a statement. “The MTA conducts specialized training for each of our employees specific to their job requirements that is designed to provide guidance on appropriate response to safety-related incidents.”

Only a few MTA employees interviewed by The Trace said they had taken the course with the active shooting module. Kimberly McLaurin, 39, a train operator with 15 years on the job who took the course in May, said the video included information on active shootings but “focused more on bombings.” For both scenarios the instruction was the same, she said: “Run, hide, fight.”

Adam, a transit worker who has been with the MTA for more than a decade and asked to use a pseudonym for fear of reprisal, said he also took the class in May and “there was zero mention of active shooter training.”

Richard Davis, president of TWU Local 100, New York’s public transit union, criticized the MTA for not doing enough, noting there have been more than 100 active shooter incidents in the country over the last two years.

“A three-hour training session, during which transit workers watch a video, seems woefully inadequate,” he said. “The MTA needs to do much better for its workers and riders.”

New York City has one of the lowest murder rates among the country’s big cities, and homicides and shooting incidents so far this year are significantly down from 2022. Shootings on the subway are rare. But the regional rail system hasn’t been immune to the mass gun violence that plagues other parts of the country. In addition to last year’s rampage, a 1993 massacre on the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) left six people dead and 19 people wounded. The city has also withstood two terrorist attacks in the last 30 years, and transit workers are keenly aware that the subway system is a soft target.

In emergencies, train operators and conductors are instructed to report what’s happening to the Rail Control Center, which directs the subway system’s emergency response, and await instruction, the MTA said in a statement. But beyond radioing for help, they receive little instruction about how to act. There is no mention of shootings or rendering CPR in the MTA’s rulebook, which is supplied to all hires, nor the subway conductor’s training manual, which provides examples of emergencies, including explosions, biological attacks, and suspicious packages, and how to handle them.

The lack of clear instruction has left workers unsure of what to do. “If there’s an active shooter on the platform or the train adjacent to mine, do I open the doors or do I keep them closed?” said Tramell Thompson, 41, a train conductor and 10-year veteran of the MTA who is a vocal critic of the agency. “Do I bypass the station? What is the proper protocol in these situations? We don’t know.”

New York state Senator Leroy Comrie, who chairs the Standing Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions, which was created in 2007 to oversee the MTA, said MTA employees should be no different. “Those folks are mostly first responders to any incident, because they’re right there. So they should have that training.” Comrie said the MTA was supposed to implement a “defined protocol” for transit workers to respond to active shootings after last year’s mass shooting, and that he was surprised to hear that it hadn’t happened.

Active shootings have been on New York’s radar for years, but preparedness training has focused on law enforcement response. In 2015, the NYPD and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) joined with the FBI, Secret Service, and transit police to stage a three-hour active shooter drill in the Bowery subway station that featured counterterror officers firing blanks and dozens of “injured” passengers. Also present were representatives from the Fire Department (FDNY) and Federal Air Marshal Service, as well as Army researchers. Then-Mayor Bill de Blasio said the drill showed that the city was “fundamentally prepared” for a mass-casualty gun rampage.

In 2020, the MTA Police Department — whose jurisdiction includes Grand Central Terminal, Penn Station, Metro North, and the LIRR — offered active shooter response training to more than 100 of its officers. And last June, with the Brooklyn subway shooting still top of mind, the NYPD transit bureau’s anti-terror unit, together with DHS, conducted a four-day active shooter training in a replica subway station at an FDNY facility on Randall’s Island.

When asked whether transit workers were included in those drills, the MTA touted its security awareness training, and did not answer directly.

Juliette Kayyem, a CNN national security analyst and former DHS official, said the focus on a law enforcement response only undermines the effectiveness of such exercises.

“The whole point of active shooter drills is that they aren’t actually for law enforcement,” Kayyem said. “They are to see how an institution responds in real time while waiting for law enforcement. Active shooter protocols were created to educate communities and institutions that might be targets, which we clearly know that the subway system is.”

Several of the transit workers interviewed by The Trace said that the lack of active shooter training reinforces their belief that the MTA does not consider them to be essential. They say worker safety takes a backseat to keeping the trains running without delays, and resent the fact that they’re not allowed to protect themselves by wearing bulletproof vests under their uniforms or carrying pepper spray.

The situation is affecting morale, Justin said. “After every shooting, nerves are up. Tension is up. People will call out sick.”

Transit workers say the problem goes beyond a lack of active shooter preparedness, describing confusion and a lack of communication from the agency in the aftermath of such incidents. Following the Brooklyn subway shooting, a company-wide text alert arrived five hours after the incident, and it didn’t mention that the shooter was at large, according to internal MTA communications shared with The Trace. Emails sent that day advised employees to “remain vigilant” and report suspicious activity to the NYPD’s Crime Stoppers tip line, but didn’t say who or what to look for — or what to do if the gunman came back and opened fire in their train car.

“MTA employees have been trained to perform their assigned duties, which include reactions in a crisis,” the agency said in response to questions about this. “The NYPD has responsibility for identifying and detaining a criminal.”

The lack of communication coupled with the lack of active shooter protocols was stressful, transit workers said. The gunman opened fire as the train traveled between stations, and when it arrived at the next stop, a conductor ushered passengers into another train across the platform. The shooter was among them. He wasn’t arrested until the next day.

While the shooter was still at large, Thompson, the outspoken MTA critic, livestreamed a video to Facebook decrying the lack of communication and advising colleagues to stay home from work until he was arrested. It still rankles him a year later. “They do not let us know of the dangers that’s happening in the workplace in real time,” he said. “If we are not clear on what to do, then everyone’s lives are at risk.”

But New York City transit workers must make those judgment calls on their own. The train operator who performed chest compressions on the victim of the Manhattan Bridge shooting last May had never performed CPR, telling reporters: “We’re not trained for that. How can we mentally prepare for something like that?”

“It’s disconcerting that transit workers don’t have even basic first aid training,” said Joseph Schwieterman, a transportation expert and professor at DePaul University in Chicago. “As little as an hour of training could save a life.”

We asked the MTA why transit workers do not receive first-aid, CPR instruction, or stop-the-bleed training as part of their basic training, and the agency said it “coordinates with and relies on NYC first responders for their expertise and mission to provide first aid throughout the City. To facilitate rapid coordination, the FDNY and NYPD staff NYC Transit’s Rail Control Center 24/7.”

Adam, the transit worker who took the security awareness training class in May, said the only knowledge he has of CPR is from watching ‘ER’ as a kid.” He said he has witnessed the aftermath of a shooting in the subway and described the frantic minutes before police arrived. “There’s screaming, there’s yelling, and the train operator is the person of authority there — the only person there.” Passengers look to transit workers for guidance in these moments, he said.

That guidance, he believes, should come from the MTA. “I hate to say it, but we should be prepared for it to happen again,” he said. “Because I don’t see it not happening in the future, unfortunately.”

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