As the new president and chief executive officer of Operation Lifesaver Inc. (OLI), Joyce Rose is taking over at an important juncture in the organization’s history — and in her career.
The nonprofit, railroad-safety education organization is coming off a challenging period that began in 2011, when a good portion of its U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) funding was discontinued as part of a SAFETEA-LU extension measure. As a result, OLI lost nearly all the funds it used for operations.
“There was a scary period of not knowing how to move forward,” says Rose, a former Capitol Hill staffer who became OLI’s top exec on Dec. 3. She credited her predecessor, Helen Sramek, with being “masterful” at getting OLI through that initial period of uncertainty prior to retiring in November 2012.
The U.S. Class Is came to OLI’s aid and replaced the loss of federal funds — about $475,000 worth, according to Rose. Moreover, representatives from the Class Is agreed to join OLI’s board of directors — a first in Operation Lifesaver’s 40-year history.
Also part of the organization’s recent transitional period is new leadership in Rose. The job represents a significant transition in her own life after serving on Capitol Hill for 25 years.
Her tenure there included 12 years as a staff member for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, where she oversaw legislative actions authorizing Federal Transit Administration programs, and developed the transit titles of the 2012 MAP-21 legislation and the 2005 SAFETEA-LU authorization. From 2008 to 2012, she served as staff director for T&I’s Subcommittee on Railroads and Hazardous Materials. Prior to T&I, she spent 13 years as a professional staffer for the Senate Committee on Appropriations, where she worked for the transportation subcommittee.
Knowing that her boss, U.S. Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), would reach his term limit as House T&I Committee chairman at 2012’s end, Rose concluded it was an appropriate time for her to change direction.
“Twenty-five years is a long time to do anything,” she says.
When she learned Operation Lifesaver’s national office was looking for a new CEO, she thought the job would be a good fit.
“It seemed like a great opportunity to wear a white hat,” she says. “There is nothing gray about this kind of job. It’s all about saving lives and educating people about the dangers on and around railroad property.”
Operation Lifesaver presents free rail-safety educational programs to school groups, driver education classes, community groups, law enforcement officers and emergency responders. The organization started in 1972, when the Idaho governor’s office, Idaho Peace Officers and Union Pacific Railroad launched a six-week public awareness campaign to reduce accidents and fatalities at rail crossings. Over time, the program expanded to all 50 states.
In a way, leading a nonprofit safety-education group marks a return to Rose’s professional roots: Before working for Congress, she was a teacher in Maryland public schools. At OLI, she supports the national effort — carried out by 50 Operation Lifesaver state offices and 1,400 volunteers — to decrease fatalities and accidents by teaching people how to be safe around crossings and rail property.
During her first year in office, Rose plans to focus on two main goals: continuing to reposition the organization onto “sound financial footing" with its USDOT and railroad funding partners; and making what she terms an “important change” in how OLI communicates its message. To increase its profile, OLI is transitioning from a “certified-presenter model” involving in-person presentations of safety educational materials to a web-based “authorized volunteer” model.
“We’re going to use technology, social media and innovative communications like our e-learning tools to reach a greater audience,” says Rose.
That transition already has started. More educational materials — some are interactive — are posted on the OLI website, oli.org. And even more e-learning tools and interactive resources will be posted in 2013, including one that “will teach people how to recognize highway rail signs and signals in a fun way,” says Rose. OLI also is increasing its presence on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.
“If you look at safety statistics, while we have seen railroad highway crossing accidents go down dramatically over the decades, we are having less success at getting down the number of trespasser fatalities, [a result of] people walking on the tracks or right of way,” Rose says. Increasingly, many trespassers are wearing ear buds and, as a consequence, may not hear an oncoming train, she notes.
And, seeing a need to educate the growing transit-riding crowd on rail safety issues, Rose hopes OLI can be a “full partner” with the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) as the agency ramps up its new authority to regulate transit system safety, a role created under the new surface transportation legislation known as MAP-21.
“There are more light rail, commuter rail and heavy rail systems in the country than ever before, and transit ridership is up to 10.5 billion rides a year,” Rose says. “Although statistically it is a very, very safe form of transportation, there still are fatalities and injuries on transit systems, and we want to prevent those that occur from trespassing on the rail or not knowing the safe way to use the train.”
As for OLI’s ongoing funding issues, Rose plans on being a strong voice for restoring the federal dollars that were eliminated under the SAFETEA-LU extension measure. Historically, OLI received most of its funds from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), with a small amount coming from the FTA. It was the highway funds — the biggest portion — that were discontinued in 2011.
“I personally think it’s appropriate for the USDOT to be a funding partner for this safety program, and I’m very hopeful that we’ll be able to do that again in the future,” Rose says. “I have very strong relationships with the folks at FHWA, FRA and FTA. Those are programs I’ve worked with over the years on the Hill. So, a big part of my job now is being the face and point person for working with those funding partners at the USDOT and the railroads.”
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