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Pooches sniff out bombs on VRE trains

(The following article by Jason Jacks was posted on the Burke Times on September 2.)

BURKE, Va. -- The terrorist attacks on four commuter trains in Madrid, Spain, last March left the world's transportation authorities skittish and wary of security on their own train systems.

Virginia Rail Express officials were no different. In response, on Aug. 31, VRE started allowing specially trained U.S. Customs and Border Protection dogs and their handlers to randomly board their trains throughout the system, including trains coming and going from the five stations in Fairfax County, in an attempt to sniff out potential bomb threats.

The new program, a first for the commuter rail authority, has two purposes, said VRE spokesman Mark Roeber. It helps reduce security threats and ease VRE customer fears, but it also allows for a training platform for federal, state and local security authorities.

"Quite honestly, it's one of the few opportunities to get a true live practical exercise," Roeber said. "It's a win for them because they get to learn about our equipment. ...The dogs also become familiar with the trains."

According to VRE officials, the new program evolved from a training exercise in July involving U.S. Customs authorities, where handlers took their dogs onto VRE trains at the Alexandria station to see how the animals would react in a crowded environment.

Roeber said the experiment was a huge success and only elicited one complaint from a customer allergic to dogs.

According to VRE officials, this new stepped-up security measure is not a response to any one threat but rather just "another layer of security" for the system. Trains are already searched as they are parked at the rail yards.

"This was an opportunity we felt should be pursued," said VRE CEO Dale Zehner in a press release.

Initially, U.S. Customs will be taking the lead on searching VRE trains, but other federal, state and local authorities, including Fairfax police, are lining up to offer their services at no cost to VRE, according to Roeber.

Other security measures VRE officials have already implemented over the past couple years include having armed, plain-clothed police officers ride their trains for free; contract a small security force to watch over the rail yards; and having staff take part in emergency drills with area special operations, SWAT and hostage response teams.

Friday, September 3, 2004

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