Emergency texting takes off: CTrain riders seek out discreet way to fight crime and disorder on their commute
'You can report something that's not an immediate emergency,' says transit rider
CBC Calgary is focusing on transit safety, a complex and multi-faceted topic. Read more of our coverage and contribute from your experience at cbc.ca/transit. Check back Tuesday for a piece on why some people using drugs seek out transit stations.
Three people began smoking drugs with a propane lighter in the middle of a busy train car last week as Heather Clitheroe was trying to get home.
She was uncomfortable, worried for the children nearby and felt unsafe. But she didn't want to make a scene.
So she did what an increasing number of Calgary Transit riders are doing these days. She pulled out her cellphone and with the stroke of a few keys, sent an alert through the Transit Watch texting service.
"The best part is that you can report something that's not an immediate emergency. It's not a 911 sort of thing. But just to say 'hey, there's something going on,' and do it quietly and discreetly without escalating a situation," said Clitheroe, who works in administration and has been using transit for more than 25 years.
"You don't make something worse because a lot of the time it can probably be de-escalated by transit police without it needing to go a whole lot further."
When CBC Calgary launched this community-driven project on transit safety, we received hundreds of messages from transit riders and former riders. More than a dozen people specifically mentioned this emergency texting number.
'I feel unsafe'
Many users love the texting service because it doesn't attract attention and can be used for a multitude of issues — everything from icy bus stops and broken glass, to drug use on transit and threats or assaults. It can even be used when someone is sleeping rough and needs to be checked on.
But others raised questions about who was answering their messages when they text 74100, why they don't always get the prompt or personal followup they're hoping for, and what difference all these reports are making.
Hannah Kekkonen is a petite young woman who has been riding transit "every day, twice a day" for the last 15 years. Most evenings she takes the CTrain from Sunnyside Station to her restaurant job near Crowfoot Station.
Texting is discreet, she said, and there's usually a basic response within minutes. Although the outcome isn't always great.
Once, Kekkonen reported needles on the train and an officer responded on site within 10 minutes. But another time, she reported being followed and threatened with violence. After a few questions about the person's description and what happened, she never found out if transit authorities looked into it further.
"I feel unsafe. It's very frustrating as a paying customer and having paid thousands of dollars to have nobody help me out when I need it."
Thousands of texts sent annually
Calgary Transit said the Transit Watch text service was launched about four years ago. It declined a requested tour of the dispatch centre but said that last year dispatchers got 13,851 texts. Of those, 3,000 incidents were serious enough to send a security team as soon as they could.
Will Fossen, superintendent of public safety and enforcement for Calgary Transit, said cases include reports of assaults, thefts and stalking. However, the most common reports are what the service calls 'check-on-welfare' and 'unwanted patron' calls.
"So somebody either causing a disturbance or somebody that they want us to check on medically," he said.
Texts go straight to Calgary Transit's operations control centre where civilian dispatchers triage the messages 24 hours a day.
Fossen said the dispatchers monitor nearly 600 cameras throughout the Calgary Transit system, so they can visually check-in on what's going. They also have a direct connection to his team of peace officers.
"We try to intercept the trains along the way. It's a difference between transit policing and regular policing as we cross all of those district lines," he said. "We try and intercept in order to lessen the impact to our customers and to remove or help that individual."
Several Calgary Transit riders who wrote to CBC Calgary sent in screen captures of their own conversations with Transit Watch. Some reported when other riders weren't wearing masks, or if they were being aggressive or had passed out.
Others said they were worried that people who looked like they were sleeping might actually be having an overdose, but said they were too scared to check on the person themselves.
People have also reported seeing riders acting unpredictably, and some carrying items that could be used as weapons, like knives or fire pokers. Some talked about keeping their phones ready to dial 911, or carrying their keys between their fingers in case they're confronted.
In their messages to CBC, it was clear many people using the text service were trying to help. But they're frustrated at not knowing what transit is doing — both after their specific report, and in general. They'd like more public reporting on the security issues and Calgary Transit's response.
'Use the text line, use the help phone'
Fossen said his team of peace officers has a lot to keep up with — they receive roughly 100 calls in a 12-hour shift. Sometimes, he said, authorities can't make it to the right train to intercept an incident, or they don't have enough information to follow up on.
Calgary Transit prioritizes reports of assault or stalking, and Fossen said his team always tries to follow up with the person reporting.
"Clothing description, accurate information on what happened during the incident, that kind of stuff is most helpful for us," he said, encouraging people to keep using the texting service.
"My advice to them, do not get involved. Let us handle that. Use the text line, use the help phone. Give us accurate descriptions of what is going on. A contact number, if possible, if they're comfortable with that."
The dispatchers received 105,257 calls to the platform's red and yellow Help Buttons in 2021, and 61,992 security-related phone calls to the general line, 403-262-1000.
Fossen said it can be a challenging job for the dispatchers.
"After a while, just like my officers, [hearing and seeing] these things can take their toll," he said. "We have had incidents where people would require counselling for what they have seen. Luckily the city has great resources available for people to access through their employee assistance programs."
Fossen added the service is still pretty new in Calgary and that there are lots of ways it could change, improve and evolve in the years to come.
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Series produced by Elise Stolte