Changes for Palo Alto Track Watch Program

Security contractor says difficult working conditions contributed to missing guards and a 75 percent employee turnover rate.

Palo Alto city officials are adding additional resources to a program designed to prevent teen deaths at railroad crossings. These changes follow a series of NBC Bay Area reports that found track guards sleeping, texting, and absent from their posts for more than an hour during critical times while trains were running.

NBC Bay Area first reported problems with track guards in February, but new records obtained by the Investigative Unit show that city leaders previously received warnings that missing guards would become an issue, and failed to act.

In a May memo sent to Palo Alto City Manager James Keene, Cypress Security stated that the difficult conditions at the tracks “created the challenges we predicted.” The letter goes on to state that Cypress first proposed solutions to the city months ago, back in December 2015 and again in March 2016.

One of the biggest challenges, according to the security firm, is the “lack of adequate restroom facilities.”

Cypress highlighted several guard posts where nighttime track watchers must travel anywhere from 1.3 miles to 3.5 miles, each direction, to get to the nearest bathroom at a Safeway store. Those trips can leave posts empty for up to 50 minutes, according to the company.

On May 2nd, five months after Cypress first identified the issue, the city approved an additional guard to provide relief at the posts during rest and meal breaks.

Security expert Hamilton Mixon has more than 30 years of experience and previously oversaw security for tech companies like Genentech and Facebook. Mixon believes these challenges should have been addressed sooner.

“The recommendations are outstanding. I think every one of those recommendations is spot on, but I would've made those recommendations at the onset,” Mixon told NBC Bay Area.

Cypress also requested the city install permanent guard shacks to provide cover from inclement weather. The recommendation states Cypress “predicted security officers would seek warmer and dryer locations,” and "seek refuge in their personal vehicles." The company’s prediction appears accurate as NBC Bay Area cameras observed guards sitting in their cars away from their posts on numerous occasions spanning several nights.

The importance of the program continues to hang over this city after another recent high school graduate ended her life on the tracks in May. The tragedy prompted the city to add a fifth watch post along the rail line.

NBC Bay Area has also received complaints from guards saying they are regularly asked to work overtime shifts of 12 hours or more. Mixon believes long hours could compromise awareness.

“When you want people at their best, eight to 10 hours is really all that you want them to work,” Mixon said.

Cypress says that Track Watch has seen a 75 percent turnover rate because of these challenging conditions, despite giving workers a $2 per hour pay raise.

Mixon believes the city has to own up to its responsibility of overseeing taxpayer money and make sure that a worthwhile program in concept is also worthwhile in effectiveness. Since 2011 the city has paid more than a million dollars on guards for Track Watch.

“At the heart of the program, it's exceptional if it saves one life,” Mixon said.

Palo Alto’s current contract with Cypress Security ends on June 30th. We asked the city for an interview to discuss the recommendations and the future of the Track Watch program, but the city declined due to ongoing contract negotiations.

The owner of Cypress Security told NBC Bay Area he’s proud of the officers who have performed duties under difficult conditions and have intervened in multiple situations to protect teens.

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