As Palo Alto's system for keeping pedestrians off the Caltrain tracks continues to evolve, city officials are shifting their focus from human monitors stationed at the tracks to computer monitors broadcasting camera footage at a distant site.
The City Council approved on Monday night a $1.4 million contract with the company G4S Secure Integration to design and construct a video-management system (which is expected to take six months) that would monitor tracks and transmit footage to a remote location, where it would be monitored. The change represents a major shift for the city's TrackWatch program, which was launched in 2009 in response to a cluster of teenage suicides and which was initially staffed by volunteer "track watchers."
In November 2009, the city began hiring security guards to monitor the tracks in seven-hour night shifts. For the first years, the guards were stationed only at the Charleston Road and East Meadow Drive crossings. The city later added Churchill Avenue and California Avenue stations and the Alma Street crossing at the northern end of the city's 4-mile track corridor. It also modified contracts to require security guards to provide 24-hour service at the tracks.
Now, the city is looking to replace security guards with a system that detects intrusion on the corridor with visible and thermal infrared cameras. The city began using such a system last summer on a pilot basis when it installed an "intrusion detection system" at the East Meadow Drive grade crossing. A report from the Community Services Department notes that evaluation of this system has shown this technology to be "superior to human monitors."
The biggest advantage is the cameras' ability to detect movement at night. The long-distance cameras and sensors combined with "detection algorithms" both provided "significantly longer viewing distance" and resulted in "much lower fatigue and stress on the monitor."
The report notes that during the evaluation period, the system was able to discern unsafe conditions that were missed by humans on-site in numerous instances.
"While it may or may not be true that a "human presence" at the tracks would provide a deterrent to someone contemplating suicide, it is absolutely clear that the IDS ("intrusion detection system) provides a more effective means of notifying law enforcement and Caltrain, especially in darkness."
The council approved the contract with G4S Secure Integration on its consent calendar, with no discussion or debate. Its Finance Committee had discussed the switch at its May 9 budget hearing, where City Manager James Keene called 2018 a "transition year" for Track Watch. Beyond the coming year, the city does not expect to have any more guards watching over the tracks.
Acting Police Chief Ron Watson told the Finance Committee at the hearing that while there is no "foolproof system anywhere," the camera system offer a distinct advantage over human guards, particularly at night.
"It is so dark out there that 50 or 100 feet away, they can't see anything, whereas, with the technology there will be some advantages on greater distances."
He noted that technology may be more useful in some areas of the 4-mile corridor than in others. For this reason, the city is using the "slow approach to really be strategic about where and when we reduce that coverage." In the most risky locations, the city will still have "multiple layers" of coverage between cameras and monitors.
Keene said that he does not expect the change to have any impact on response time to potential incidents. Contrary to popular perception, monitors are not authorized to physically intercede in the right-of-way. Rather, they call the Police Department if they see something amiss. The person monitoring the camera footage would follow the same protocol.
In addition to the one-time cost of $1.5 million for installing cameras at the four Palo Alto crossings, the city will also be spending about $325,000 annually for remote monitoring, maintenance and power. Today, the city spends about $1.7 million for human monitors at the tracks.
The city's effort to deter people from walking on the tracks (broadly known as "means restriction") is part of a broader community effort to address the recent clusters of teen suicides. After the 2009 incidents, the city joined the school district and community volunteers to launch Project Safety Net, a collaborative focused on youth well-being.
The new report from the Community Services Department (whose director, Rob de Geus, is part of the Project Safety Net effort), states that while there is evidence that reducing access to "means" prevents death by suicide, monitoring the tracks is not a panacea to the "complex and challenging issue of suicide prevention."
"Investment in the health and well-being of Palo Alto's youth and teens must be multi-faceted and, well beyond track security services, inclusive of community, school, parent and student efforts across the Palo Alto community, as seen in the work of Project Safety Net," the report states.
Any person who is feeling depressed, troubled or suicidal can call 1-800-784-2433 to speak with a crisis counselor. People in Santa Clara County can call 1-855-278-4204. Spanish speakers can call 1-888-628-9454.
People can reach trained counselors at Crisis Text Line by texting 741741.
The link below provides more resources where one can receive help: