Winnipeg Transit could soon install emergency alerts that warn riders to call 911 instead of boarding a bus, while council will also consider a bus security force.
Upon approval, an emergency signal system that integrates electronic bus signs with two-way radios, could be added within two weeks to the entire bus fleet, at a cost of $9,100, a public service report notes.
When a driver activates the signal, a bus’s electronic signs would display the message "Emergency Call 911 – Do Not Board Bus" and Winnipeg Transit’s control centre would be notified.
The change is needed to ensure quick emergency responses, after far too many assaults, including some with weapons, occurred against drivers and passengers, said James Van Gerwen, the executive vice-president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1505.
"We’ve had multiple occasions now where somebody’s had a knife on the bus and I really would hate to see someone get on the bus at that time," said Van Gerwen.
He said the signal would allow drivers to trigger warnings that are only visible outside of the bus.
Winnipeg Transit has recorded 54 assaults against drivers so far this year. There were 74 in 2020. Van Gerwen said if serious verbal attacks are included, that number rises to 73 in 2021 to date and 88 in 2020.
"It’s still a persistent problem. (Driver) shields have stopped people from spitting at drivers while getting off the bus… but (riders) still have the ability to reach around (it)," said Van Gerwen.
In the most severe attack in recent years, driver Irvine Jubal Fraser was fatally stabbed on his bus on Feb. 14, 2017.
More recently, the union has raised alarm bells over continuing threats, such as seven incidents in which riders grabbed the wheel of the bus this year, said Van Gerwen. In mid-September, three passengers were assaulted on buses within a seven-day period, including two who were stabbed.
"When you start seeing the extent of some of these assaults, you realize that something needs to be done," said Van Gerwen.
The union is also urging Transit to replace the current partial driver shields with full ones that cut off access to bus operators.
It would like to see some form of dedicated security force to patrol transit, something that’s been discussed for years but never implemented.
"We’re looking (for someone) between a cadet and a police officer who has the ability to… detain and restrain people," said Van Gerwen.
Coun. Matt Allard said the Transit advisory committee will recommend some form of bus security staff for councillors to consider, though he didn’t know the exact date that request will be publicly released.
Allard, council’s public works chairperson, said the cost of that initiative and the number of security employees that would be hired would be released along with the recommendation.
The councillor said all public places, including buses, could benefit from safety improvements, but security measures alone won’t address all threats.
"There was a recent stabbing on a bus and my thought on that stabbing is we need to get back to social services, housing and addictions supports because it’s hard to imagine a security measure that could have prevented that particular attack. Somebody was stabbed in the back," said Allard.
He said the advisory committee will consider the union’s call to switch to larger shields for drivers.
The public works committee will cast a final vote on implementing the emergency signal system for buses on Dec. 1.
If approved, the emergency system should better protect riders, though public buses remain relatively safe overall, said Rick Young, acting manager of operations for Winnipeg Transit.
"It’s just another tool in the tool box to help prevent anything that may happen on the bus. Winnipeg Transit is still one of the safest modes of transportation," said Young.
Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves to tell the stories of this city, especially when politics is involved. Joyanne became the city hall reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.