Echoes of a pre-9/11 scenario where first responders could not communicate with each other still exist at Penn Station -- among Amtrak police who must use their personal cellphones to call for emergency backup.
The lack of access to the federal radio emergency frequency "makes the Amtrak Northeast Corridor, which runs through major cities like New York City, even more vulnerable in the event of a natural disaster, derailment or terrorist attack," Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Sunday at a news conference in Penn Station.
Schumer wants the Federal Communications Commission to change its rules and include the nation's railway police on the list of first responders with access to the nation's radio emergency frequency.
"It makes no sense," Schumer said. "It's a dangerous situation here where thousands pass through Penn Station and where cars transporting oil can explode and Amtrak officers have no radio communication with the FDNY. We want to change this," Schumer added, calling the FCC rule "a bureaucracy" that can be easily fixed.
As several flat-screen televisions played a public service announcement urging passengers to report crime and suspicious terrorist activity to Amtrak police, an Amtrak police officer recounted having to use his personal cellphone to call local police in New Jersey after he was attacked by a passenger in 2011.
"It was very scary," said David Pearlson, president of the Amtrak Police Fraternal Order. "It was 3 a.m. in the morning and this man was punching and kicking me in the head. I was lucky that Brunswick police responded quickly."
For two years, Amtrak police officers have been trying to get first responder status from the FCC so they can connect their radios with other first responders. Currently, Amtrak police must call the Amtrak command center, whose personnel then call 911. The process takes more time, and Pearlson said it is quicker for officers to use their own cellphones to call 911.
Penn Station is the busiest railroad station in the Amtrak system. In New York, the railroad has more than 100 police officers, detectives and special agents who patrol the station.
Schumer said Amtrak is considered a railroad and not a law enforcement agency under the FCC rules. Officers for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Metro North and Port Authority, all state agencies, are connected to the first responder radio spectrum.