The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is funding an antiterrorism training program for parking lot attendants and meter maids to observe and report suspicious activity as they go about their day.
The new training program, reported last week by the Associated Press, comes after two t-shirt vendors in New York City's Times Square alerted a police officer to a smoking SUV parked on 45th St., just off Broadway. The SUV contained a crude bomb that failed to detonate.
In development for about a year, the training program was unveiled last week in Las Vegas at a parking lot industry convention. "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 (TSA) told the International Parking Institute Conference and Expo. "We're saying, 'Please, sir, get involved."
The program "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," reports the AP.
The training is part of a larger TSA-administered program known as First Observer, run by Alexandria, Virginia-based HMS Company, which won a competitive grant in 2008 worth $15.5 million.
According to the program's Web site, "'First Observer' is a national safety and security program that uses the skills, experiences, and 'savvy' of America's transportation professionals to help protect the critical transportation function that moves the goods and services and people across America."
The idea is simple. As transportation and parking workers trained under the program do their business across the country, they'll keep an eye out for anything out of the ordinary that may indicate criminal activity or terrorist precursor behavior. If they see something suspicious, they will call a hot line connected to a 24/7 call center set up by HMS. Incoming information is then routed to an Information Sharing and Analysis Center (ISAC), run by critical infrastructure owners and operators that feed information to the federal government.
(For more on ISACs, see Joseph Straw's "Fusion Centers Should Work with ISACs" from the Nov. 2007 issue of Security Management.)
HMS won the contract after DHS shut down the program's first iteration known as Highway Watch (.pdf), run by the American Trucking Association, after Congress required the program to undergo competitive bidding.The current First Observer program already has ten training modules spanning truck drivers to highway workers, says HMS President Charles Hall. The parking lot attendant and meter maid training module will be the eleventh.
"The point is not to turn parking attendants into government agents," reports Las Vegas' KVBC News 3. "Rather, it’s to have them act as eyes and ears for the government. They will be trained to recognize suspicious activity such as cars that have been parked in one place for too long."
Since becoming head of DHS, Secretary Janet Napolitano has repeatedly stressed the importance of ordinary citizens to disrupting terrorist plots and attacks.
“The vigilance of individual citizens is critical to protecting our country from the threat of terrorism,” Napolitano said in October.
♦ Photo by Gribiche/Flickr