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Dispatch recordings show confusion at TriMet in coronavirus response

The transit agency has struggled to deal with overcrowded buses and instances of possible contamination.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Audio recordings between bus drivers and dispatchers help illustrate the confusion at TriMet, as the transit agency struggles to deal with instances of overcrowded buses and possible contamination from coronavirus.

In one case, a TriMet driver found himself looking for guidance from supervisors after a passenger potentially contaminated the bus purposely.

“He spit all over his hands and just started touching every single part of the bus,” the unnamed driver says in the dispatch recording from March 26.

The driver didn’t have any sanitizing wipes or safety equipment, according to the recording. He was told to return to the garage, but dispatchers weren’t sure how or where the bus driver should clean-off.

“I’m not OSHA. I’m not a hazmat team. I don’t know,” the TriMet driver said, looking for advice from dispatch. “I was going to call the fire department here in a minute.”

“That might be an ultimate solution,” explained the TriMet dispatcher, who offers compassion, yet limited guidance in the recording.

RELATED: Real-time coronavirus updates: 98 more cases in Oregon, 12th death

Shirley Block, union president of ATU 757 representing TriMet drivers and operators, said the agency has been slow to respond to safety concerns surrounding the coronavirus outbreak.

“They claim they have a plan now, but for weeks we have been trying to get them to get a plan in place,” said Block.

 When asked about safety protocol, TriMet provided a three-page memo marked "Draft," which outlined procedures for dealing with "COVID-19 Contamination on a Bus."

Approved: MM/DD/2018 COVID-19 Contamination on a Bus (Governance: TBD) Bus Maintenance TBD Departments Bus Maintenance Pg. 1 of Affected 1.0 Purpose. A protocol to address safety and a chain of command when addressing a vehicle that has come to a garage yard with a report of elevated risk for COVID-19 contamination.

An agency spokesperson said TriMet doesn’t have a written policy for dealing with contaminated drivers, only a verbal policy.

TriMet claims it has enhanced bus-cleaning procedures, sanitizing vehicles at least once, if not more each day.

RELATED: What PDX, TriMet and others are doing to prevent the spread of coronavirus

The dispatch recordings present another concern for some drivers: overcrowded trains and buses.

“At one moment, every seat on my bus had somebody in it,” a TriMet driver warns in one dispatch recording.

“Six feet is a suggestion," the dispatcher responds. "It is ideal to prevent the virus from being transmitted. Can’t always meet that ideal. If you feel it is unsafe, just make a choice."

To promote six feet of social distancing, TriMet put up signs, and the agency is no longer taking cash on buses.

RELATED: TriMet no longer accepting cash on buses

“We continue to look at ways to encourage social distancing,” wrote TriMet Spokeswoman Roberta Altstadt in an email to KGW.

TriMet drivers suggest they’re on their own to enforce social distancing among passengers, while still maintaining their routes and service, on time.

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