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A Citizen’s Eye View of Public Preparedness

As Government Trains Parking Attendants, ‘Meter Maids’ & Doormen On Terrorism, What (If Any) Training/Information Should Other Citizens Get?

May 20th, 2010 · 2 Comments

An Associated Press article, “Parking attendants trained to watch for terrorists,” I saw last week (thanks to the informative National Terror Alert Twitter feed) highlighted a new federal homeland security program that:

aims to train thousands of parking industry employees nationwide to watch for and report anything suspicious — abandoned cars, for example, or people hanging around garages, taking photographs or asking unusual questions.

Organizers say parking attendants and enforcement officers are as important to thwarting attacks as the two Times Square street vendors who alerted police to a smoking SUV that was found to contain a gasoline-and-propane bomb.

“We can no longer afford as a nation to say, `It doesn’t impact me or my family, so therefore I’m not getting involved,’” Bill Arrington of the Transportation Security Administration told parking industry professionals at a convention this week in Las Vegas. “We’re saying, `Please, sir, get involved.’”

It makes a lot of sense for officials to educate those citizens who are more likely to see suspicious behavior. Similarly, as part of its outreach to the private sector, the New York Police Department has been training workers who spend their day on the street level, such as building doormen. In Boulder, Colorado, city employees who write parking tickets also receive special anti-terror training.

The AP article continues:

The program is part of a larger effort by the government since 9/11 to enlist ordinary people — airline passengers, subway riders, bus drivers, truckers, doormen, building superintendents — to serve as the eyes and ears of law enforcement.

But while all the “ordinary people” mentioned in the article are being enlisted “to serve as the eyes and ears of law enforcement,” not everyone is receiving training or briefings. Ordinary people who are not part of the industries covered by the authorities aren’t being included.

I would argue that with an apparently increased threat the nation is in sort of a halfway, ambivalent position when it comes to the role of the public in homeland security. Officials say they want civilians to see and say something and are an integral part of the anti-terror team. But are they giving them the information necessary to be most effective? This may be especially important now as experts are warning about the possibility of new attacks, particularly from improvised explosive devices (IEDs) such as the one Faisal Shahzad tried to set off in Times Square.

In fact, Mark Mueller, Acting Deputy Chief, Office for Bombing Prevention, National Protection and Programs Directorate at a recent Homeland Security Policy Institute forum on the increased domestic IED threat stressed the necessity of providing concrete guidance to the public, and underlined the role citizens play in providing key intelligence explaining that “quite often it is the alert clerk, it’s the off-duty police officer, it’s the neighbor” who notices key indicators that enable law enforcement and national level assets to intercede before a threat comes to fruition.

The National Terror Alert website offers a detailed list of “suspicious behavior” citizens should look for with a mnemonic, SALUTE. Former football star narrated a video for Denver’s Center for Empowered Living & Learning, “Recognizing The 8 Signs Of Terrorism.” However, that level of guidance is not normally provided to the general public. Now, an argument can be made that it’s too much information for average citizens to know (or to have learn). Further, you don’t want Americans obsessed with being tipsters, especially in areas with little terrorist threat. It’s a balance. But I don’t think government officials have found it yet.

The question is if the government is training the outer rings of the security concentric circle should it begin to put a little more emphasis on the next circle out — the rest of the “ordinary citizens”? Officials have said that a more informed public is a stronger public, but have not yet figured out how to accomplish that goal. It’s not easy, because these are sensitive topics. And there is a question of what and how much to do. I don’t think we know the right answer. It will require some study and analysis. But it is important and I think can be done quickly if authorities are willing to try.

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Tags: See Something/Terrorism Tips

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