Caroline Camhy didn’t have a plan the night she decided to grab a lawn chair and sit along the Caltrain tracks near her home. It was Oct. 20, 2009, and all she knew was that teenagers were killing themselves, and she had to do something.
"At that point I had a son coming into third grade and a son coming into fifth grade, and I started to think of what was going to happen," says Camhy, at her home office in Palo Alto. "What was I doing? Why was I here? What was I doing here? And how could I continue to live here when, just down the street, students of our local high school and middle school were taking their lives?"
It didn’t take long for other moms and dads to join Camhy. They'd sit in the dead of night, watching the trains barrel down the tracks. "It's very loud. And it's very bright and it comes very fast and it takes a long time being out there to get used to the speed at which it comes," says Camhy.
It was hard to see beyond a few feet. The light was almost blinding.
But maybe, Camhy thought, their presence would be a deterrent. Maybe what’s really needed, she thought, is for someone to sit in a chair outside, when it's cold, and "just be there."
At the height of the TrackWatch program, 150 volunteers in rotating shifts kept watch over the tracks. Camhy did it for three years, even after the city added paid security guards. And the number of suicides at Palo Alto’s four train stops went down.
By 2012, volunteers began to peter out, and as Camhy’s children got older, they needed her around more. It also occurred to Camhy that simply having someone sitting along the tracks was an unsustainable solution to a much deeper problem.
"Today, I was outside and I drove by and I noticed a guard looking at his phone. So it is very difficult to be out there for hour after hour and in all kinds of weather," says Camhy. "And after a while, you sit out there and nothing happens. Time after time and day after day, people begin to lose focus. And so the security guards were somewhat of a mixed bag."
The city says there is no way to know for certain how much of a deterrent it has been to have people watching the tracks. While train deaths on the Peninsula have gone down, schools and community groups have also invested a lot in suicide prevention and education.
Cameras replace the human eye
For nearly 10 years security guards in Palo Alto have kept close watch of Caltrain crossings. This summer those guards will be replaced by cameras.
Over the spring, the city installed surveillance cameras at its four Caltrain stops. The city hired an outside surveillance company for $1.5 million to monitor the tracks 24 hours per day. The biggest advantage, the city believes, is that cameras will be more effective than human guards because they can detect movement at night and “see” up to 1,000 feet in each direction. Humans will monitor from a remote location, and will be able to talk through a speaker to those near or on the train tracks.
Palo Alto resident Mike Coffee walks across the tracks on his way to work and waves to the guards each morning.
"You could get into all sorts things like, how tech is always looking for some facile solution for a complex problem, and I suppose it’s better than nothing," said Coffee. "It definitely feels like it’s treating the symptom rather than the disease."
But as Camhy has learned, suicide is a complex phenomenon. She realized this all those years ago when she decided to place a lawn chair at the railroad tracks and watch.
"A lot of these things are just hope. We try, and we hope it works, and then we see where it works. We'll see where it doesn't work. We try and we hope again. That is really the nature of this whole process," says Camhy. "And I think that this switch to the electronic surveillance is definitely part of it."
The switch to electronic surveillance, she believes, is the next evolution as the Palo Alto community continues to work to understand the complexities of suicide.
The cameras will replace the human guards at the start of the new school year, in late summer.