The U.S. is no stranger to vehicular terrorism. In 1993, a bomb exploded inside a parking garage beneath the World Trade Center. Two years later, Timothy McVeigh detonated a vehicle full of explosives in Oklahoma City. Most recently, Faisal Shahzad pleaded guilty on June 21 to charges of trying to detonate a car bomb on May 1 in Times Square.
The Transportation Security Administration — part of the larger federal effort to prevent such attacks by watching for warning signs — now plans to take the war on terror into American parking facilities.
In the coming months, the TSA’s First Observer program will roll out lesson plans for workers such as parking attendants and meter maids to help them become the latest anti-terror weapons.
Courses led by former CIA agents and police officers will teach participants to observe their surroundings for suspicious activities, assess different situations and call First Observer’s 24-hour hotline if they see things such as unattended vehicles that seem out of place, tampered license plates or someone closely monitoring or repeatedly visiting a location.
Bill Arrington, general manager for TSA’s Highway and Motor Carrier division, oversees First Observer. He said that oftentimes “911 does not respond to activities of a suspicious nature unless there’s a criminal activity that can, in fact, be tied to it.”
But that suspicious person or vehicle might be a warning sign for a major attack. “While it‘s not illegal to have propane tanks in your vehicle, certainly you would agree that having five propane tanks in your vehicle does in fact appear to be suspicious,” Arrington said in reference to the Times Square incident.
The First Observer concept was conceived in 2004 as the Eyes on the Road program for Americans whose jobs involve lots of driving. Since then, more than 400,000 school bus drivers and 1 million truckers have enrolled and are currently monitoring U.S. roads. The program transformed into First Observer in 2008 when it started to include the entire transportation infrastructure.
Charles Hall’s Alexandria, Va.-based HMS Company was put in charge of designing First Observer. Hall said he believes it will become “the most effective antiterrorist and awareness program for ordinary people.”
Don Rondeau, who operates the Highway Information Sharing Analysis Center, said First Observer –funded by a $15.4 million homeland security grant through 2011 — yielded quick results when a truck driver noticed an increase in violence taking place near the U.S.-Mexico border in early 2009.
The trucker alerted the call center and set off a chain reaction: The center processed the information and referenced Mexican media to discover an uptick in ongoing drug-related violence near the border. First Observer contacted its network of transportation experts, and drivers began revising their routes near the border in order to stay safe. Not long after this happened, American media picked up the story.
The violence around Juarez, Mexico, has since become a prominent fixture in the national border-security conversation. “It all started with one phone call from one guy,” Rondeau said.
Arrington, Hall and Rondeau all point to the Times Square T-shirt vendor who alerted police to the suspicious SUV as a prime example of the “observe, assess, report” philosophy that First Observer preaches. Arrington said that when Americans are empowered to play a more active monitoring role, they can create a complete shift in post-Sept. 11 mentality — from fear and lack of control to a more secure, confident state of mind.
Arrington said that with the right level of awareness, “together we can make a difference in our fight against those that are seeking to destroy us.”