Crowd-Sourced Reporting Provides Transit Agencies a Valuable Tool in Protecting Against Terrorism

April 28, 2017

The reality of today’s threat levels forces transit agencies to develop strategies concerning terrorism. The very nature of public transit systems—their open design, multiple access points and heavy volume of passengers—makes them hard to defend.

The string of recent terrorist plots, including the latest out of Russia, validates the need to assess how transit agencies are protecting themselves, including through utilizing a new source of valuable information: crowd-sourced reporting. Smartphones are everywhere; incoming information from smartphones makes a critical difference to responding personnel. The utilization of crowd-sourced reporting is an innovative approach to 21st-century transit policing.

“ELERTS understands the need for crowd-sourced incident reporting. The police can’t do it alone. Twenty-first century policing requires the community’s participation in public safety. There is no better sensor for security threats than an eyewitness who sees or overhears a threat,” says Ed English, ELERTS CEO. “Transit agencies of all sizes are using ELERTS’ See Say communication platform to enhance safety.”

ANNABELLE BOYD and JOHN P.SULLIVAN Boyd, Maier & Associates Barboursville, Virginia Synthesis of Transit Practice 27 Emergency Preparedness for Transit Terrorism

The changing nature of terrorism presents new challenges for U.S. public transportation agencies. A primary mission of each transit agency is to ensure, to the fullest extent possible, the security of passengers, employees, and agency property. Each year, U.S. public transportation agencies carry more than 8 billion passengers and employ almost 300,000 people. The U.S. mass transit infrastructure is currently valued at more than $1 trillion (1). Transit police, security, and agency personnel, in cooperation with local police departments, implement a variety of security programs to protect transportation agencies, their customers, and employees. Collectively, these programs have demonstrated considerable effectiveness in reducing violent crime and improving customer perceptions of security (2-4). However, these programs, designed to manage traditional security concerns, must now address the emerging threat of transit terrorism. This synthesis describes the practices of transit agencies to mitigate and respond to acts of terrorism.


Terrorists see transit and passenger rail as an attractive target. Designed for public convenience, trains and stations offer terrorists easy access to crowds of people in confined environments where there are minimal security risks and attacks can cause high casualties.

Public surface transportation poses unique challenges. It is not easy to increase security without causing inconvenience, unreasonably slowing travel times, adding significant costs, and creating vulnerable queues of people waiting to pass through security checkpoints. This has compelled rail operators to explore other options: enlisting passengers and staff in alerting authorities to suspicious objects or behavior, random passenger screening, designing new stations to facilitate surveillance and reduce potential casualties from explosions or fire, and ensuring rapid intervention.

Although it includes only attacks on surface transportation—a popular terrorist target—the database maintained by MTI confirms this pattern. Between 1970 and the end of 2015, MTI counted 3,409 attacks on buses, passenger trains, and ferries worldwide.

“The relative infrequency but relative lethality of attacks against subway trains and stations can be quantified by the Mineta Transportation Institute’s database of terrorist and serious criminal attacks on public surface transportation throughout the world,” said Mr. Butterworth. “The subway system in particular is an attractive target, as are intercity and commuter trains and their stations, along with buses.”

Countering Terrorism in Transportation by Mortimer L. Downey, Thomas R. Menzies

Successful transportation counterterrorism, however, will require a new strategy. There is no point in trying to protect against or weed out every possible opening for terrorists. That is a traditional approach to transportation security, but it is expensive and demonstrably ineffective. The new strategy should rely instead on layering and interleaving various defensive measures. With layering, each safeguard, even though it may be inadequate by itself, reinforces the others. A layering strategy will not only protect against vulnerabilities in transportation security, it will also deter terrorists by creating uncertainties about the chances of being caught.

Threats: A Guide JOHN N. BALOG McCormick, Taylor & Associates, Inc. Philadelphia, PA MATTHEW G. DEVOST Technical Defense, Inc. Burke, VA And JOHN P. SULLIVAN Rowland Heights, CA

Rapid and accurate information sharing is a critical operational need for coping with threats against public transportation systems. Emergencies arising from terrorist threats highlight the need for transportation managers to minimize the vulnerability of passengers, employees, and physical assets through incident prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery. Managers are seeking to reduce the chances that transportation vehicles and facilities will be targets or instruments of terrorist attacks and to be prepared to respond to and recover from such possibilities. By being prepared to respond to terrorism, each public transportation agency is simultaneously prepared to respond to natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods, and wildfires, as well as human-caused events such as hazardous materials spills and other incidents.

Brian Michael Jenkins (Communication of February 2017 MTI Report 12-74) The Challenge of Protecting Transit and Passenger Rail: Understanding How Security Works Against Terrorism (Published by the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University)

In response to the threat that terrorists may attack anywhere, members of the public have been mobilized to bring suspicious behavior or objects to the attention of the authorities.

Security measures should aim for a net security benefit. Increasing security in order to merely displace the risk from one target to another, while necessary in special circumstances, offers little net security benefit. This argues against disruptive and costly security efforts to protect public places.

Nevertheless, security measures have demonstrable utility. They can create operational problems for would-be attackers; affect terrorist target selection; reduce terrorist effectiveness; uncover explosive devices; detect weapons; assist authorities in quickly diagnosing and responding to attacks; help to quickly identify and apprehend perpetrators, thereby preventing further planned attacks; and facilitate rapid removal of innocent individuals from harm’s way.

Enlisting the public in security demonstrably works. One security measure that can be quantified and that appears to work in the area of surface-transportation security is enlisting staff and the public to call attention to suspicious behavior and objects. Public awareness in the United Kingdom seems to have helped in identifying explosive devices placed by the IRA. According to the MTI database, warnings by staff, on-scene security personnel, and passengers prevented 11 percent of terrorist bombings in Europe.

Brian Michael Jenkins and Bruce Butterworth (24 Mar, 2014) Says Subways Are Still in Terrorists’ Sights Teausant plot follows predictable pattern to attack transit (Published by the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University)

Meanwhile, keeping both passengers and employees alert is key. “See Something, Say Something” may sound trite and tired in the rapid transit system, but it can work. In the 3,754 attacks recorded against train, bus and other targets, there are indications that in somewhat less than 400, someone interrupted the attack. Sometimes the narratives do not specify who took the initial action (in about 170 cases). In other cases, they were interrupted by police, military, intelligence agencies, or anonymous tips. Without these interventions, the collective death toll could have been much worse.

ELERTS’ See Say™ mobile phone app was developed for transit agencies to enable the crowd-sourcing of safety and security concerns from riders. When riders see a potentially threatening situation, with the click of a button, they can:  1) directly call the police or 2) discretely submit a report with a photo, video, incident description and GPS coordinates. The camera flash is disabled to avoid drawing attention to the rider. Riders may also choose to submit a report anonymously.

Due to the participation of vigilant riders, the ELERTS mobile app converts crowd-sourced knowledge into situation awareness for the transit agency. Once a report is initiated, two-way communication is enabled. The dispatcher can ask the rider for more details about the situation or provide instructions as needed. The app allows riders to report incidents such as suspicious activity, disruptive behavior, crimes in progress and security and safety issues. Riders may also report immediately threatening situations such as assaults and attacks on drivers.

“Crowd-sourced reporting of security incidents works. Riders see suspicious activity before it evolves into an incident,” says Ed English. “Getting actionable information to police immediately from eyewitnesses can enhance their response [times].”

There is no better way to locate a person of interest than to ask the riders for help. Transit agencies can use the ELERTS communication system to broadcast Be on the Lookout (BOLO) alerts to the mobile phones of riders and staff. Missing persons, dementia patients and criminal suspects can be quickly located this way. Transit agencies of all sizes have had great success locating persons of interest by broadcasting BOLO alerts with photos and details.

The ELERTS See Say app is branded for each transit agency. It enables riders to engage in crowd-sourced reporting, providing immediate situational awareness throughout the system. When transit agencies publicize the availability of this app for increased rider safety, they encourage riders to think twice about their own behavior.

About ELERTS: ELERTS Corporation, headquartered in Weymouth, MA, develops best-in-class emergency communication software empowered by community-sourced reporting of safety and security concerns. The company’s cloud-based approach leverages smartphone technologies to provide robust, bidirectional communication between multiple parties. ELERTS mobile technology integrates video surveillance, access control and mass-notification systems. The result is actionable information for emergency situations that help first responders become faster responders.

Transits using the app report an increase in rider safety and a decrease in crime. ELERTS is the leading provider of See Something Say Something apps to mass transit agencies. With years of experience, the ELERTS system delivers proven results. With their apps, police gain real-time, previously unavailable visibility of activities; crimes are stopped and people in distress get help.

For more product information, click here.  To request a demo, click here.  Call 877-256-1971 or email


Crowdsourced Situational Awareness

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