Fighting Chemical Warfare in Boston: A Park Street Story

1222438885Monday the Globe reported that hidden chemical sensors have been installed in an unnamed T station since 2001. The goal of the devices is to alert those in the station to terrorist chemical weapon threats, allowing customers to flee to safety. The MBTA declined to reveal where the sensors are located, “citing security concerns.” But I’ve got a guess, and a decent one at that, as to where the sirens would blare if deadly gas were floating through the subway.

About a year and a half ago while switching trains at Park Street, an alarm assaulted my ears. An automated announcement could be heard between the shrieks of the warning system. I forget exactly what it said, but the point of the announcement was that we were breathing poison. I recall being frightened, but other passengers seemed fairly unconcerned, so I didn’t panic either. I remained on the Green-line platform, waiting forever for my train, clutching my ears against the nuisance.

When asked why the location of the chemical sensors was being kept from the public, MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo wrote:

“For transit customers, their safety is not contingent on knowing the precise location of the sensors. But they certainly will benefit greatly if a detector triggers an alarm that alerts people to leave the area.”

Really? The Department of Homeland Security denied the MBTA funding to install three more of these systems, at about $1 million each. Apparently they don’t alert people fast enough to be effective.

Or alert people at all. If what I recall was in fact the alarm, how could it have been effective? There’s a reason we conduct fire drills in schools and office buildings: so we know how to recognize and respond to an emergency.

What happened that night on the T was a glaring failure. No one knew what to do, because no one knew what that blaring noise was. There are times when it’s better not to know, when information could threaten the safety or happiness of others, when nothing is gained from knowing except vulnerability. This is not one of those times. We need to know, if for no other reason than to keep ourselves from being canaries in an MBTA mineshaft.

Did anyone else hear this? A piercing alarm at Park Street one night in the spring or summer of ’07? The comment box is open.