if you see something say something

If You See Something, Say Something

If you have used any means of public transportation recently, you’ve probably noticed that security measures have been stepped up. In the aftermath of U.S. forces’ operation to kill al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, many Americans share anxiety of a retaliatory terrorist attack.

Several major cities—including New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles— deployed larger-than-usual forces of policemen and security staff at airports and subway and rail stations. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has teamed up with transit agencies in all major cities across the United States in light fear of attacks avenging bin Laden’s death.

Just days after President Obama announced that U.S. Navy SEALs killed bin Laden, TSA Administrator John Pistole, FEMA Director Craig Fugate, NYC Police Department Deputy Commissioner for Counterterrorism Richard Daddario and Chicago Transit Authority President Richard Rodriguez testified before the House Homeland Security Committee on Capitol Hill.

A number of lawmakers expressed concern regarding the terrorist threat posed to mass transit systems in big cities across the country. “Especially now in the wake of bin Laden’s death, we have to assume that al-Qaida or its affiliates—al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, any of the others, any of the radicalized terrorists here at home, self-starters, if you will, lone wolves or organized terrorist operations in this country—will launch a domestic attack,” said House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King, a Republican from New York. “And to me, clearly, if we are talking about potential targets, no one is more of a potential target than our mass transit systems.”

Recent history shows that attacks similar to the subway bombings in London, Madrid, Moscow and even Belarus’ peaceful Minsk are quite easy to orchestrate. The damage and casualties from those attacks are devastating, delivering major blows to the economies and disrupting the fabric of life. So far, the United States has been fortunate enough to stop these attempts, thanks to outstanding collaboration and efforts by our intelligence and task forces.

About 71 percent of TSA’s $8.1 billion 2011 fiscal budget is spent on securing airlines. In contrast, only about 1 percent is spent on securing surface transportation. Unlike airport security, which relies on high-tech scanning equipment and heavy video surveillance, transportation security depends on the eyes and ears of the general population.

However, increasing funding for security in transit systems as the nation is trying to reduce a nearly $14 trillion deficit is hardly an option. To make matters worse, Congress has already trimmed $50 million from a transportation security grant program this year. King asked witnesses at the hearing for suggestions on how to protect the nation from a possible terrorist attack even with a budget cut. While there are no specific threats to mass or rail transit right now, passengers must remain vigilant and aware, according to Pistole.

In July 2010 the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), launched a national “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign. According to the DHS website, the initiative is designed to “raise public awareness of indicators of terrorism and violent crime, and to emphasize the importance of reporting suspicious activity to the proper state and local law enforcement authorities.”

The campaign launched in conjunction with the rollout of the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative (NSI), an administration-wide effort to develop, evaluate and implement common processes and policies for gathering, documenting, processing, analyzing and sharing information about suspicious, possibly terrorism-related activities. Led by the Department of Justice, the NSI is implemented in partnership with state and local officials across the nation.

Transit system operators have evaluated methods, practices and technologies geared to empower citizens to be watchful eyes and ears for mass transit safety. This campaign will work only if there is a way to quickly and reliably inform the right security authorities of an actual or potential threat or problem so that the proper action can be taken before lives are lost to an attack.

Local Transit

It is clear that although TSA and FEMA support more-stringent security measures in all major transit centers in the country, local transit agencies will have to look for creative ways to secure their facilities if federal funding were to fall short. Public awareness campaigns, combined with efficient use of technology, could help them achieve that goal.

The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) is the second-largest transit agency in the nation, serving 1.7 million riders daily on bus and rail networks. DHS recognized CTA in March for its high scores in all categories of the security inspection program for transit. The transit authority is among many that have adopted the “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign. Its website warns riders that, “if you observe an unattended package, witness anything unusual or see someone acting suspiciously, alert a CTA employee or call 911 immediately.”

“This campaign was borrowed from [New York’s Metropolitan Transport Authority] in 2002 and encourages riders to report any suspicious activity that they observe,” Rodriguez said. “In addition, CTA has participated in and continues to participate in training for a number of scenarios using a range of programs.”
Because cell phones don’t always work in subway systems, many transit agencies have chosen to deploy emergency phones, which are easily seen and require only a push of a button to connect to the correct security staff. Not only do these phones allow security personnel to instantly pinpoint a caller’s location, but they also provide the quickest way to contact security in case of an emergency. In addition, all CTA trains are equipped with a two-way intercom system that is accessible to riders during an emergency.

CTA and other systems have also installed emergency phones, signage and lighting, as well as emergency walkways in the subway tunnels. In the event passengers must leave the train between stations, they can quickly and easily notify security of the emergency event that required them to leave the train. As these emergency phones automatically notify security of their location, security can better tell passengers what to do and dispatch assistance to the correct location.

“We have blue lights affixed throughout the subway. Those blue lights are in place where telephones are located,” said field employee Myron Meredith in a public safety video produced by CTA. “At those telephones, passengers have the ability to push one button and they are able to talk directly to our control center. As they continue walking toward the emergency exit, there is a flashing blue light that will alert them to the location of that emergency exit, as well as the message that is playing that directs them to that emergency exit.”

Employees at the transit authority’s control center alert Chicago’s fire and police departments to emergencies on CTA’s system. Fire and police personnel train alongside the system’s staff so they can become familiar with the subway’s tunnels and elevated structures, which allows them to assist riders quickly when they respond to the scene.

Meredith confirmed the importance of the control center.

“As field employees, we are in direct contact with our control center,” Meredith said. “Our control center has direct lines to the police department, the fire department and the Office of Emergency Management and Communications.”

CTA continues to conduct drills of various emergency scenarios with both the fire and police departments.

According to Rodriguez’s testimony on Capitol Hill, CTA’s latest initiative to combat crime and deter terrorism is the installation of the high-resolution digital security cameras. The network cameras allow CTA, the Chicago Police Department and the Office of Emergency Management and Communications to gain a clear picture of an emergency situation and respond accordingly.

Sometimes it is not sufficient to simply notify the security personnel of an emergency; while security cameras supply critical information to the security staff, these officials might not have a chance to act on an event. Immediate action taken by mass transit riders can save lives, if the platform is equipped with the right tools.

In 2009, a story of a woman whose toddler was flung off a CTA platform took the headlines: A Red Line train took off from the Morse station with a stroller caught in its doors, dragging it down the platform and flinging the 22-month-old toddler who had been in the stroller alongside the tracks.

The toddler did not hit the electrified third rail and was, fortunately, flung far enough away from the tracks of the departing train. She is doing well, and her mother credits divine power for the miraculous ending. While this story has a happy ending, a person falling on tracks is, unfortunately, not a rare occurrence. Many local transit authorities have taken preventive measures.

Phoenix, Ariz., Light Rail and the Sacramento, Calif., Transportation Authority went a step further with public safety efforts by installing a special emergency communication device equipped with a kill switch on platforms. The unit empowers everyday users of public transportation with the ability to cut the power to the tracks by pushing an emergency button.

Anyone can engage the emergency button to immediately cut the power to the tracks. Other units installed include IP emergency phones, visible blue lights, and emergency lettering and instructions. In some locations the units are wall-mounted, and in others they are mounted on their own integrated stainless steel post.

Securing the transition points from one type of transportation to another is also a must. Emergency phones are strategically placed in such locations to allow the general public to report any suspicious activity. This technology has been employed at various transit authorities in the United States, including the CTA’s Orange Line connection to the city’s Midway Airport.

Security in parking garages and outdoor parking lots adjacent to airports also require due diligence. Proper planning of access points, emergency phones and surveillance all play an important role in terror plot prevention. CTA’s park and ride lots use a combination emergency phone towers and PTZ surveillance cameras to quickly zero in on any emergency situation.

Layers of security play a critical role in creating a safe and secure environment. However, even the best of technologies can fail to detect a lone individual’s malicious intent, be it a radicalized, homegrown terrorist or member of a larger terrorist organization. We must learn to critically observe our environment and report anything out of the ordinary. We have the tools at our disposal; now we must look
after one another.

Budget Cuts

Cutting the deficit will be challenging on both the state and the federal levels. Extreme caution must be exercised to not fall for “false economies” by reducing funds to transportation security. King said the human and economic costs of a successful terrorist attack would far outweigh any money saved on security for mass transit.

According to information recovered from bin Laden’s compound, al-Qaida considered attacking U.S. transit systems. One idea, outlined in handwritten notes, was to tamper with an unspecified U.S. rail track so that a train would fall off the track at a valley or a bridge.

The FBI and Homeland Security told local officials to be on the lookout for clips or spikes missing from train tracks, packages left on or near the tracks and other indications that a train could be vulnerable, according to The Associated Press.

DHS has not elevated the security threat level. The large quantity of intelligence recovered from bin Laden’s compound will no doubt yield new evidence that might uncover existing terrorist plots against democracies. Staying at least a step ahead of our enemies is the name of the game.


This article originally appeared in the July 2011 issue of Security Today.


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