In February 2011, a college student from Saudi Arabia was arrested in Texas for plotting to bomb U.S. targets after trucking company officials alerted authorities about a suspicious chemical they were hired to carry. A few weeks earlier, a Greyhound bus driver in Virginia persuaded a hijacker to let the passengers offload. They notified the police, who were able to defuse the situation and arrest the individual.
These separate incidents had one common thread—the transportation employees had been trained through a federal terrorism and security awareness program known as “First Observer.”
The nationwide program, led by William (Bill) Arrington of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), recruits and trains volunteers from the trucking, school bus and motor coach industries, law enforcement as well as sports stadium personnel, parking lot attendants and other highway transportation professionals to observe, assess and report suspicious activities that might pose a serious public threat.
Since late 2008, the TSA program has trained and certified about 60,000 people on how to spot suspicious activities and report information to a 24-hour, seven-day a week call center. The program also has provided information, including a 15-minute video, to some 170,000 others in the transportation field, and has signed up 150 industry organizations that have endorsed and agreed to support training initiatives.
Arrington said the program offers an opportunity to engage ordinary citizens and get them involved in helping protect the security of the nation in this post-9/11 world.
“It’s probably not someone like me sitting in Washington that is going to stop the next event,” said Arrington, a former lieutenant colonel in the Maryland State Police. “It will be a concerned citizen who is trained in how to spot suspicious behavior. They will be the vital piece that helps us connects the dots to help prevent the next (terrorist) act.”
Arrington’s colleagues credit him with astutely marketing the business and national security benefits of the program to the transportation sector, and building alliances with companies and organizations throughout the industry. They said that the “best security practices” training component of the program has had a significant business benefit for trucking and bus companies, and even helped a number of transportation firms secure reduced insurance rates because of the precautions they now take.
“Bill has made it a viable program,” said Jerry Henderson, who worked under Arrington at TSA and is now the federal security director at the Little Rock National Airport in Arkansas. “He sees the big picture. He’s made huge strides.”
Charles Hall, president of the Virginia-based HMS Company, the grant recipient running the day-to-day operations of First Observer, said many in the industry took a “a wait and see attitude” when the new program was formally launched in August of 2008.
“Bill overcame all of the initial resistance,” said Hall. “He reached out to skeptics and took a personal, proactive role. It’s a program he believes in and it permeates everything he does.”
Arrington noted that 9-1-1 dispatchers often will not respond to reports about activities of a suspicious nature unless a criminal activity is taking place. He said the First Observer 24-hour call center will take information, carefully assess it and transfer it to the Information Sharing and Analysis Center for investigation, if warranted.
Besides truckers and bus drivers, Arrington initiated training for more than 1,200 event staff at the most recent Super Bowl and for the staff at the Daytona 500 to be alert to possible terrorist threats regarding deliveries and in the parking lots. In addition, the TSA program has trained event staff for the Colorado Rockies and Detroit Tigers of Major League Baseball.
Arrington said the First Observer program helps fill a critical gap by piecing together seemingly unrelated activities to understand a potentially bigger event with the help of tens of thousands of the men and women who work in the highway transportation industry and related fields.
Proponents of the program point out that before the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, Timothy McVeigh engaged in 12 distinct suspicious public activities, including loading explosives onto a truck parked by a private lake the day before the attack. Several people saw McVeigh, but no one even thought to alert authorities.
Hall said that if individuals had reported even some of the suspicious behaviors to a program like First Observer, McVeigh may well have been caught before claiming 168 lives.
As the general manager for the Highway and Motor Carrier Security Division within TSA, Arrington’s broader mission is to secure highways, bridges and tunnels and protect the tens of millions of people who use this transportation network every day.
Arrington has implemented programs to inspect the most important of America’s 600,000 highway bridges and 350 major tunnels to identify and harden any structural or operational elements that might afford an opening to terrorists.
Although just a part of his job, Arrington said the First Observer program stands out for him because it involves “government, the private sector, and ordinary citizens coming together for the greater good to enhance transportation security.”
“The program doesn’t require many resources except time and devotion. It’s truly the way good government ought to work,” he said.