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Keeping Mass Transit Ahead of the Curve

DAYS AFTER TERRORISTS FAILED to detonate four bombs aboard three trains and one double-decker bus in downtown London, thousands of cameras captured images of the suspects, which were broadcast around the world. Using these images, police were able to apprehend the men within days of the incident.

The U.K.’s experience illustrates how helpful CCTV can be in followup investigations. Security experts emphasize, however, that it’s only one of many tools that need to be arrayed to defend against terrorists. “You really have to be considering a completely integrated approach, and in order to do that effectively, you cannot depend on one element primarily, or one element to the exclusion of another element,” says Henry Nocella, managing director of Nocella Security Consulting LLC.

Nocella and others advocate a multipronged approach that includes proper training and a blend of nontechnical and high-tech solutions. Some progress has already been made on these fronts, but the nature of subway systems presents security professionals with especially difficult challenges that will be hard to fully address.


One way to improve mass transit security is to make sure that everyone involved—nonsecurity personnel as well as police and other first responders—has had the proper training.

Nonsecurity staff. For nonsecurity personnel, the keys are that they can recognize threats and that they know how to respond and who to call for assistance. To those ends, the National Transit Institute (NTI) at Rutgers University has developed several training programs and resource materials, which they make available at little or no cost to transit systems around the country. The effort is funded by money from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). The FTA has also provided transit systems grants for conducting emergency preparedness drills and threat assessments.

One NTI program, begun after 9-11, is called “System Security Awareness.” The program teaches employees the basic skill sets that will enable them to know where to look, what to look for, and what to report to effectively observe, react, and respond to suspicious activity and security incidents.

Another NTI program, “Terrorist Activity, Recognition, and Reaction,” deals specifically with terrorist threats and teaches employees to understand the importance of identifying and reporting suspicious activity that precedes a terrorist attack. In addition, the course teaches employees to recognize the difference between normal, suspicious, and dangerous activity and how and when to report findings to trained security personnel or police. The content of these and other programs is available to transit systems through classes, train-the-trainer programs, videos, CD-ROMs, and pocket guides.

NTI worked with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and New Jersey Transit to train staff in preparation for the Democratic and Republican National Conventions in 2004, says Renee Haider, associate director of NTI. The institute was also asked to train every employee of the Chicago Metra system, a commuter train. The Metra training was conducted over a six-week period and included a detailed three-to-four hour training session.

Courses such as those offered by NTI “can provide a force multiplier of many extra eyes who not only know what to look for but, more importantly, know how to properly respond to a threat against the facility or asset,” says Michael Weiss, supervisory special agent with Amtrak’s Office of Inspector General.

Police and first responders. A number of initiatives are aimed at improving police and first-responder readiness to handle transit incidents. At the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation

Authority (MTA), for example, drills are as realistic as possible, says Captain Dan Finkelstein, chief of police for MTA.

One drill included actors from UCLA who were asked to simulate victims with shrapnel and other wounds. The drill had three different security events happening simultaneously to mimic multiple attacks. In one situation, police set up a station to identify and decontaminate victims exposed to harmful toxins such as those present in chemical weapons.

Finkelstein says the drills helped prepare his employees to respond quickly and efficiently to a real-life incident. In January 2005 three MTA Metrolink trains collided after the lead train crashed into a car left on the tracks by a man attempting suicide. The crash, which injured hundreds and killed 11, would have been even more tragic, says Finkelstein, if his employees had not prepared for similar events in the drills.

Finkelstein says that his officers have also received training in specific threats, including suicide bombers, which he says is the most challenging danger he may ever face. The training teaches the officers what behaviors and signs are common to most suicide bombers and how the officer should react if he or she suspects that a suicide attack is imminent. In addition, Finkelstein spent a week in London after the July 7 bombings to learn from the methods of disaster response and mitigation used by local first responders.

In Minneapolis, Metropolitan Transit Police Chief Jack Nelson says his officers are regularly trained to respond to a variety of security situations, including suicide bombers. Although Nelson acknowledges that technology can make a significant impact on security, “There’s no substitute for a person,” he says. “I’ll trust a policeman’s gut instincts long before something electronic.”

Other Resources

Even well-trained personnel can only do so much. That’s where supplementary resources come in. Here’s a look at the range of nonhuman interventions that are being deployed.

K-9 units. Some transit systems have been using bomb-and weapon-sniffing dogs on and off since 9-11. According to Charles Patterson, president of C&R Associates Incorporated and a member of the ASIS International Transportation Security Council, transit systems should expand the use of K-9s. Patterson says these dogs should be used for patrols and to augment more high-tech solutions, such as ambient air detectors.

A spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security says K-9 units remain the most effective tool for detecting bombs. The TSA, the agency within the DHS that is responsible for securing mass transit, is partnering with police departments to provide K-9 teams for use in aviation and mass transit systems. Upkeep and training for the dogs is provided by TSA.

Nelson says that the Minneapolis system has two dedicated bomb-sniffing K-9 units that are used to patrol all 17 stops on the city’s light rail system. When the transit system is at code orange, he says, the dogs patrol the system around the clock.

In Los Angeles, several different K-9 units are trained in a variety of practices, including explosives detection, gun detection, and finding bodies in rubble. Although the transit authority in L.A. already has a substantial contingent of dogs, Finkelstein says that he would expand the use of K-9s if funding allowed. The advantage of K-9s, he says, is that they not only help detect bombs and other threats, but they also help riders feel secure by providing a visible presence.

Sensors. In addition to K-9 units, a number of transit systems are investing in high-tech sensors that can be used to detect the presence of explosives or chemical agents. However, many of these sensors are extremely expensive to install and can be cost-prohibitive to smaller transit systems like Minneapolis. Given the cost, says Nelson, the threat is not great enough to merit installing sensors.

For larger systems like Los Angeles, the threat is greater and the situation on the ground is also different, which changes the cost-benefit analysis. For example, when the MTA was built, explains Finkelstein, methane gas sensors were installed for health and safety reasons. Methane gas can be found in pockets underground and is highly flammable and toxic to humans. The county is in the process of upgrading these sensors to allow them to detect chemicals that might be used in a terrorist attack.

TRIP. Detectors geared specifically toward explosives detection were tested by DHS in the TSA Transit and Rail Inspection Pilot (TRIP) program. In the first phase of the program the agency installed explosives trace portals, which require passengers to walk through a system similar to a metal detector, at the low-traffic New Carrollton stop along the commuter rail and Amtrak line close to Washington, D.C.

The detector requires passengers to stand in the portal while a puff of air is blown on them. If explosives residue is detected, monitoring personnel are notified. Although a spokesperson for DHS said the system performed its job well, the department has determined that a massive, system-wide deployment of this type of technology would be impractical, because the few seconds it takes to screen each passenger would create insurmountable delays that would hamper the ability of passengers to enter and leave the transit system quickly.

Phase two of the TRIP program used large explosives detection systems (EDS)—which are also used in airports—to screen checked baggage on Amtrak trains. DHS successfully screened 3,800 bags during the testing, but ultimately found that the large size of the equipment and the expense would be too much to make it practical for every Amtrak station. These two tests illustrate why securing mass transit is more difficult than securing airports.

Phase three of the program tested a trace-residue document scanner manufactured by Smiths Detection. The sensors use transit fare tickets which are passed through a detector. The fare tickets were chosen because it is likely that the majority of passengers would use this to access the system, says a spokesperson from Smiths. The company admits, however, that passengers using contactless cards—common in many subway systems—would not be tested because the equipment requires a physical medium for transporting the residue.

Another shortcoming to this type of detector, says Patterson, is that a suicide bomber may not be the person actually handling the explosives and may simply carry the bomb in a sterilized backpack. This person would not have any residue on his or her hands and would, therefore, not transfer the residue to the fare card.

Ambient air. Smiths and other companies are also developing other types of detection systems that test samples of the ambient air for the presence of chemicals without requiring time-consuming individual checks. Ambient detectors might be one of the only feasible ways to implement this type of security, says Douglas Callen, chief security officer for DHS’s Security Administration Office of Security.

The Smiths Detection version of the sensors can be integrated with other security devices, such as CCTV cameras and alarms, which would be triggered to record and alert authorities if chemicals were detected. Most of these sensors, including the Smiths Detection version, can be deployed in closed-air and open-air environments. Sensors used in open-air environments, however, would have to be more sensitive than those used in closed-air environments because the concentration of chemical molecules is less dense when it is dissipated through the open air.

Ambient detectors have their limitations, however. According to Patterson, the detectors are capable of identifying the presence of trace amounts of explosives and other nonexplosive materials that have properties similar to explosives, such as perfumes that can be used to mask the odor of homemade explosives. Alerts due to the presence of perfume would create too many false alarms to be effective in a subway environment, says Patterson. For that reason, he says, the detectors are typically configured to alert security only when they detect the presence of commercially manufactured explosives or a substance that is very similar to commercially manufactured explosives, which means that homemade explosives may not trigger an alarm.

Surveillance. As the terrorist incidents in London illustrate, CCTV and other types of surveillance equipment can have a major impact on transit security, at least in terms of helping to identify suspects after an incident. More advanced “smart” systems might help to alert authorities to suspicious activity in advance of an attack as well; however, those more refined systems often come with a steep price tag, says Greg Hull, director of operations of safety and security programs for the American Public Transportation Association.

Hull says that although most major transit systems in the United States have some form of surveillance in place, the sophistication of the systems varies widely. “Certainly transit systems would like to use technology to a much greater degree, and they would like to work towards the newer applications of surveillance equipment, but…the funding simply is not there to enable these systems to do that,” he says.

Some large systems, such as the Los Angeles MTA, have, however, already received DHS grants to improve security. According to Finkelstein, MTA has been awarded more than $8 million in grants that are being used for technology improvements, such as expanding and upgrading the CCTV system.

For example, the MTA is installing new pan-tilt-zoom (PTZ) cameras that have the ability to work in low-light conditions. In addition, all MTA buses, which are also secured by Finkelstein’s officers, have been equipped with CCTV.

One of the most advanced CCTV systems in the United States is currently being planned for the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The system, which will be installed and monitored by Lockheed Martin, is part of a three-year, $212-million expansion that will include the installation of more than 1,000 cameras and more than 3,000 motion detectors and other sensors.

In addition to having PTZ capabilities, most of the cameras will have intelligent-video capabilities, which use specialized software to monitor for specific suspicious behaviors, such as an object being left behind, says Mark Bonatucci, the Lockheed program director for the MTA project. If suspicious behavior is detected, an alarm will alert a member of the security team who can then dispatch police to investigate.

Although Bonatucci is not at liberty to discuss specifics, he says the cameras will be used to monitor high-volume spots, such as train stations, and other high-risk areas. The areas that will be monitored were identified in an extensive vulnerability assessment conducted by the New York MTA prior to the Lockheed award.

Intelligent-video capabilities will revolutionize how CCTV is used, but it is important to remember that these systems are reactive, not proactive, says Nocella. “What still is important is the human element,” he says. “You have to have a person to recognize that alarm—a person to react to it and take some kind of steps.”

Patterson says that perhaps the most effective use of intelligent video is to track and identify pre-event terrorist planning. He says this type of system could also help thwart a terrorist attack, but only in a case where someone’s hesitant about committing the act because it is unlikely that police could respond in enough time otherwise.

“It is important to understand,” says Amtrak’s Weiss, “that a camera on its own will do little to actually stop a terrorist who is bent on attacking a facility.” Weiss says, however, that “the same camera that is properly integrated with additional systems and monitored in a way that allows early warning and quick response can ultimately be the key factor in thwarting an attack.”

The ideal system requires human intervention to make an informed decision, explains Weiss. That decision would be based on the intelligence gathered by CCTV and other security devices.

Other experts are less concerned with whether the cameras have cutting-edge capabilities. The transit systems should focus simply on installing as many cameras as the budget will allow, they say, because the psychological deterrent of cameras is enough to help thwart potential terrorists.

“Terrorists do tend to get scared off at times, and not all of them are of high confidence, and we’re in a situation where al Qaeda’s global capacity for organization is not what it was. Therefore, I think that if we can make the lives of these folks more complicated, we may discourage some of them from trying in the first place,” says Michael O’Hanlon, senior scholar at The Brookings Institution.

Indeed, agrees Arie Kruglanski, terrorism expert and distinguished psychology professor at the University of Maryland: “Deterrence is the name of the game.”

Terrorists look for easy targets that guarantee success, Kruglanski notes, and surveillance may deter attacks. But, he adds, incidents like the bombings in London—where CCTV cameras were prevalent—underscore that “no one means is going to deter terrorism. ”That can also be accomplished by flooding a system with police and stepping up inspections as New York’s subway did in October after it received a specific threat.

The bottom line, says Nocella, is that “you have to be realistic about security. There’s absolutely no way that any security system can guarantee you protection against anything. A good security posture is one that tries to evaluate the threats and takes a look at existing vulnerabilities, then comes up with programs that will address the vulnerabilities in light of the threats and in light of the risks you think you can accept.”

Marta Roberts is assistant editor at Security Management.