Five Years Later: Securing Public Transit Post 9/11

Posted on October 18, 2006 by Alex Roman, Associate Editor

Americans will never forget the sad and tragic events they awoke to on Sept. 11, 2001. The terrorist attacks that took place that day fractured air travel as we knew it, and caused governments worldwide to find ways to prevent anything of this sort from happening again.

Part of the solution has been to fortify aviation security. However, the terrorist bombings in Madrid, London, and Mumbai, India, have shown that there is another potential target that has not yet been wholly addressed — public transit.

“It’s not any secret that the number of riders of mass transit is in the billions and the monies toward public transit security is in the millions,” says Polly Hanson, chief of Metro Transit Police for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA). She adds that the reverse is true for aviation security, where there are millions of passengers every year and billions of dollars spent on security.

In fact, since 2001, the aviation industry has received $20 billion from the federal government for security measures compared to the transit industry’s $386 million. Those numbers seem out of joint when you consider that public transit systems in the U.S. carry more than 32 million passengers a day, which comes to roughly 16 times the number of air travelers.

“The highest priority to understand is that it doesn’t make any difference whether other things may go down, it’s the fact that some people want to make the public afraid to travel,” says William Burke, director of transit security for San Diego Metropolitan Transit System (MTS). “What better way to do that then on trains and buses.”

The public transit bombings abroad, as well as a couple of thwarted terrorist attempts in the U.S., have caused many agencies to change focus and begin to see themselves as a potential target.

The recent Public Transportation Security Assistance Act of 2006, H.R. 5808, has authorized the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to award $3.5 billion in grants to public transportation agencies, on a competitive basis, for rail security and capital improvements through 2009.

To be eligible for grants, agencies have to develop a threat and vulnerability assessment in cooperation with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), as well as a list of priorities. DOT will then review the information before allocating grant funds.

In addition, the DHS has also recently announced that it would be giving out $136 million to tighten public transit security in a program weighted toward the protection of underground operations from improvised explosive devices.

The game has definitely changed since 9/11. Five years ago, transit agencies prepared for crashes or other natural disasters. Today, they are preparing for the threat of terrorist attacks. With that shift, many agencies are looking for the best way to protect their riders.

Agencies go state-of-the-art
Authorities investigating the London bombings were able to get accurate pictures from the transit systems’ closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras, which proved to be pivotal in the capture and arrest of the suspects.

Many metropolitan agencies in the U.S. are now following London’s lead and have begun installing CCTV or similar pan/tilt/zoom camera systems to monitor their buses, trains and stations. The one drawback to technology this advanced, however, is cost.

Because of these costs, agencies are installing cameras slowly as they await additional federal funding or search for ways to fit the price tag into their existing budgets.

Following a trip to London by a contingent from the L.A. Sheriff’s office, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority (LACMTA) installed more than 500 pan/tilt/zoom closed-circuit cameras throughout its rail system that have already paid off.

“To date, we are pushing about 25 to 30 felony cases where we’ve been able to make arrests and secure prosecutions based on those cameras,” says Dan Finkelstein, LACMTA’s chief of police.

CCTV camera systems have the ability to generate clear, concise still-photos without the pixilation of previous inferior systems, which allow transit police departments to release photos of would-be suspects to the public when asking for help.

Many other metropolitan agencies have followed suit. The New York City (NYC) Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) has a $280 million contract with Lockheed Martin to install cameras and an intrusion detection system on its transit system by 2008. Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) plans on installing approximately 1,200 security cameras on its rail system by the end of 2006 to go along with its 432 security cameras at 27 rail stations. All of CTA’s more than 2,000 buses are already equipped with security cameras, and all new railcars on order will come with seven security cameras each.

In addition, WMATA is upgrading to a CCTV camera system in many of its rail stations and has equipped more than 40% of its buses with video cameras; San Diego is in the process of installing CCTV in many of its stations, including its San Ysidro station, located a few miles from the Mexico-U.S. border; and Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) has launched a pilot program with cameras at a few of its stations, as well as on several buses and some railcars.

Smaller systems, such as the Utah Transit Authority (UTA), are considering installing cameras, but cost has been a deterrent.

Another smaller system, Hampton Roads Transit (HRT) in Virginia, has security cameras on its entire bus fleet, and by 2007, will equip them with an advanced communication system that will allow the agency to track its fleet using GPS.

Many agencies hope to add behavior and facial recognition technology to these camera systems that will help automate the process of alerting the proper authorities when a known terrorist or criminal is riding its system or if a person’s actions look suspicious. The problem is that some of the technology necessary has not yet been perfected.

Employee, customer awareness
“If you go back and read the 9/11 Commission report, one of the most telling things that they said is that the greatest failure of 9/11 was one of imagination,” says Lewis Schiliro, director of interagency preparedness for NYC MTA. “We could not imagine that they could do such a thing, and I don’t think we can fall into that same trap again.”

Recent bombings have left little to the imagination as far as how terrorists may strike. What is being left to the imagination, however, is how to keep an open system of transportation safe and secure every minute of every day.

Most agencies, especially smaller ones, have increased their transit police forces to have more of a presence at terminals and throughout the system itself. Since 9/11, some transit agencies such as UTA have taken over the patrolling of their system from private contract services.

“In the past, security officers would deal with the problem initially and had to wait for an officer to come and complete the task,” says Ross Larsen, chief of police for UTA. “Now, we can step forward and take care of the problem in a more timely and efficient manner.”

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has launched a nationwide safety and security awareness program called Transit Watch that encourages transit passengers and employees to report anything suspicious or dangerous.

Many agencies have similar programs already in place but with different names, such as NYC MTA’s “See Something, Say Something” program.

“There are people who ride the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) that have sat in the same seat everyday for years,” says Schiliro. “Believe me if something is out of place they’re going to say something.”

Schiliro and others say that providing training to employees could possibly be one of the most effective ways agencies can deter crime. In Los Angeles, LACMTA has provided transit terrorism awareness training for more than 9,000 of its employees, including its bus and rail operators, maintenance staff, managers and executives.

“Our employees are the ones who are going to encounter suspicious packages or people who are behaving in a suspicious manner first,” explains LACMTA’s Finkelstein. “It’s important to give our frontline employees the skills to recognize suspicious activity and teach them to still act logically when those situations arise.”

Bomb Detection, Emergency Preparedness
In 2002, the FTA’s “Connecting the Communities” program gave agencies $50,000 each for disaster training and emergency preparedness that involved the local community.

San Diego’s MTS conducted four emergency response drills that included local fire, police and emergency authorities; mock explosions; theatrical make-up artists; and acting students with recreated injuries.

“They have proven to be successful in many ways, including allowing outside agencies to learn what we do, what we’re capable of doing and what assistance we can provide them,” says MTS’ Burke.

Similar drills and training have taken place at agencies nationwide. LACMTA’s Finkelstein says that drills similar in nature to San Diego’s helped the agency ensure an efficient response during a Metrolink crash in Glendale, Calif., in January 2005. “There is no doubt that the dry runs and dress rehearsals we had were instrumental in making our response as seamless as possible,” he says.

Smaller agencies have also used the FTA funding to conduct similar, smaller scale drills, as well as infrastructure assessments and personnel training.

There has also been a push toward securing more bomb detection canines from the Transit Security Administration (TSA), which began to use them in airports following 9/11. Transit or local police officers receive training from the TSA and get to use the specialized canines for bomb detection, emergency response or in a variety of specialized ways. DART, which currently has no canines, works with local airports to use their canines if something occurs on the transit system.

NYC MTA, has recently increased its canine presence from 17 to 35, and expects to grow that number to 50 by the end of the year. The canine unit is used to patrol areas such as Penn Station, Grand Central Terminal and the LIRR.

NYC has also created a canine unit that would combine with its emergency services team to respond to emergencies, the possible existence of explosive devices or suspicious activities, explains Schiliro.

Ready or not?
Most transit agencies agree that access to funds is the biggest obstacle in completing the security wish list. They also universally agree that 9/11 and recent transit system bombings have changed the game completely. What’s not clear, though, is how much of a target transit actually is.

Many agencies admit that they have zero intelligence that says public transit is a potential target, and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has said that there is no specific or credible intelligence report indicating a threat to U.S. transit systems.

Still, many can’t argue that the recent attacks abroad do show that a particular trend may be growing.

“Public transit is definitely a target,” says WMATA’s Hanson. “And, the more focus and strengthening of aviation security there is the more vulnerable public transit becomes, because you just displace where the terrorism would occur.”

Smaller systems are not necessarily sure if they are a target or not, but are still preparing just in case.

“Sometimes there is a little antipathy because of how we’re here in less than a metropolitan area. But, that also makes us a more desirable target because we may be viewed as being easier to attack,” says UTA’s Ross Larsen.

No matter the risk, there is no doubt that transit agencies are more prepared now than they were in 2001.

“Just like all other agencies, the level of our preparedness has changed because the threat wasn’t there before,” says Burke.

Burke also adds that because it’s difficult to see the future, it’s hard to anticipate whether more or fewer security measures will be needed. The most important thing, he says, is to remain proactive.

His sentiments are almost unanimously agreed upon by transit agencies that have had to work double time to get proper security measures and training up to par. They also agree that the level of preparedness and the amount of new security measures needed will change as the threat level increases or decreases.

“The real philosophical problem is determining when this so-called war on terror will be over with,” says Schiliro. “I think that is going to be the battle for all of us, and we’ll probably have to maintain our vigilance for a generation.”

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