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  1. Transportation

'Now I am afraid.' Hillsborough bus drivers demand more safety precautions after murder

TAMPA — More than 15 Hillsborough County bus drivers demanded safer working conditions from the transit agency board Monday in the aftermath of a colleague's slaying last month.

One by one, they stepped to the microphone and shared their stories.

Kimberly Amdor was assaulted and punched in the face by a passenger in 2016.

Phillip Burgos, who started as driver in 1988, said he was forced to defend himself after a rider attacked him and the bus' panic button didn't work.

Sonia Andrugo said people have repeatedly spit in her face and punched her.

"I always was so proud to work here," Andrugo told the board. "But now I am afraid."

Thomas Dunn died May 18 when a passenger slit his throat while he was driving a Hillsborough Area Regional Transit authority bus along Nebraska Avenue. Now, his fellow drivers are petitioning the board to do more to protect them on the job.

"When you say it was an isolated incident, we erase the fact that I was personally threatened," driver and local union organizer Denny Crisostomo said.

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Drivers focused their requests on three areas: making sure the panic buttons on all 180 buses are properly working, moving video cameras to the front of the bus and installing protective clear barriers that separate drivers from passengers.

The transit board heard a presentation on safety and security procedures later in the meeting, but it did not include plans to address those specific concerns. Instead, chair Les Miller convened a new committee of five board members, union representatives and law enforcement to focus on the drivers' suggestions and other solutions.

"I appreciate your presentation but it needs to go a little bit further than what you've given us," Miller told transit authority staff. "If the cameras have to be moved, move the cameras. If the panic buttons aren't working, fix the damn panic buttons. Let's get it done folks. ...Whatever it takes."

Miller instructed the new committee to report back to the board with recommendations, costs and a timeline for implementation by the July board meeting.

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The agency will also undergo an independent safety audit and staff is planning a statewide symposium in July on safety concerns.

"It really is a new day at HART where we are looking to immediately find solutions," said Colin Mulloy, the authority's safety director.

But board members expressed concerns over issues raised by drivers, specifically stories that drivers were unable to reach anyone at dispatch when problems arose or that their reports were brushed off or ignored.

"Let's not have another incident," board member Kathleen Shanahan told staff. "Take some steps that the union has asked us to take immediately."

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor was particularly concerned that the panic buttons, which drivers can hit to send a distress call to dispatch in an emergency, are reportedly not working on many buses.

"That should've been checked the day of," Castor said, referring to the day of Dunn's death. "I would expect by the end of the day you will find out if every one of those panic buttons is working. That's not a hard task."

Half a dozen employees from Pinellas County's transit authority were also at the meeting Monday to show support for their Hillsborough partners. The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority has a bus with a protective shield for drivers that it has been testing. The agency loaned the bus to Hillsborough after Dunn's death for drivers to check out.

Pinellas is still considering whether to buy the clear driver-protection shield for all of its 248 buses. At $5,000 per shield, it would cost more than $1 million to install on the fleet. Spokeswoman Whitney Fox said the agency's executive committee is discussing the purchase and that the bus manufacturer will visit later this week to address any questions.

"We hope to come to a resolution sooner rather than later in partnership with our union," Fox said.

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.

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