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Calif. transit security funds misdirected, experts say

(The Associated Press circulated the following article by Don Thompson on November 3.)

SACRAMENTO -- California's mass transit agencies are throwing too much of their scarce federal funding at preventing a hard-to-stop terrorist attack and too little preparing for an attack's aftermath, according to security experts who studied the spending patterns for the Associated Press.

The priorities ignore the lessons of the bus and train bombings that killed 247 people in Madrid and London: It's impossible to fully secure big-city systems designed for easy access to hundreds of thousands of riders.

For its review of transit spending, the AP asked top counterterrorism analysts in the United States and the United Kingdom to examine details of $15.5 million in federal funding six major California transit agencies have been given over the past two years. Their advice: Assume an attack will one day succeed and fine-tune the emergency reaction to respond to the carnage, confusion and disruption. In most cases, that's the opposite of what's being done.

"I was surprised there was so little emphasis on the response and recovery plan," said Magnus Ranstorp, a counterterrorism researcher at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. "It's sort of a smorgasbord approach. I'm not sure some of the money is well spent or well thought-out to be efficient."

Transit agencies defended their approaches, saying the prevention of an attack must be the top priority.

That's partly because transit agency officials believe it's their job to run the trains, buses and ferries safely -- and the responsibility of firefighters and police to respond should terrorists strike, said Bill Pedrini, chief of protective services for Caltrain, a commuter rail service that runs between San Francisco and San Jose.

Bay Area Rapid Transit was one of five San Francisco Bay Area transit agencies that formally made prevention their No. 1 policy goal when they set priorities for dividing $7.5 million in federal counterterrorism grants this fall. Detection was second, recovery third and emergency response last.

"Prevention is where we want to be -- stop it before it happens," BART spokesman Linton Johnson said.

The experts contacted by AP said some of the agencies' purchases are cost-effective, citing bomb-sniffing dogs, improved communications equipment and tighter security at maintenance and parking areas.

Those were among dozens of spending items in the records of the six agencies: the Bay Area Rapid Transit District, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in Los Angeles, Caltrain, the Southern California Regional Rail Authority, the North San Diego County Transit District and the San Joaquin Rail Commission.

The agencies also bought plasma televisions, personal protective equipment, padlocks and surveillance cameras, radios and alarms, handheld bomb detectors and motion detectors, fences and fiber-optic equipment.

Such spending "reinforces the point that transit agencies are at square one with respect to responding to terrorist threats," said James Moore, a public transit expert at the University of Southern California's Homeland Security Center.

BART, for example, has purchased 1,600 new radios since 2000 that can't communicate with local emergency workers -- the same flaw that hampered the response to the 2001 terror attacks in New York City.

The radios allow BART employees to better communicate in tunnels, a goal experts applauded, and can be upgraded to work with other agencies, Johnson said. Discussions about linking the radios to other agencies' systems began only this fall, although BART officials gave some of the radios to regional fire and law enforcement departments so they could communicate during an emergency.

Surveillance cameras are another costly, but not necessarily effective, expense that has sapped millions of dollars in California agencies' spending.

Such cameras helped British authorities quickly investigate the London suicide bombers and can help minimize robberies and assaults. They also might deter terrorists who aren't willing to give up their lives, said Brian Jenkins, a counterterrorism expert with the Los Angeles-based Rand Corp.

But the London attacks also show the limitations of cameras. In London, the world's most extensive video system recorded the bombers practicing their attack but didn't deter them.
Experts also questioned the effectiveness of many of the other preventive measures the transit agencies are adopting.

For example, the Southern California Regional Rail Authority allocated $120,000 for four handheld bomb-detection devices, while San Francisco Bay ferries are testing airline-style systems to detect explosives.

Such devices are generally ineffective because terrorists know there is little chance they'll be detected in the random searches that are practical for mass transit, said Charles Shoebridge, a security analyst and former counterterrorism intelligence officer with the London Metropolitan Police.

Suicide bombers would merely detonate their devices immediately if they are detected or target lines of commuters waiting to go through security checkpoints, he said.
Better to spend more money installing shatterproof glass and nonflammable materials, or the kind of campaign that BART launched that urges its more than 300,000 daily commuters to be individual "bomb detectors."

The best use of money is conducting constant drills for emergencies, experts said.
There also should be detailed yet flexible plans to quickly communicate with the public and to move commuters around choke points so as much of the transit system as possible can continue operating.

The frequency of drills varies widely in the six transit agencies reviewed by the AP.
Caltrain performs multiagency drills once a year. San Diego County transit conducts a "tabletop" exercise with police and fire agencies every year but has a live, large-scale drill only every other year -- the minimum required by the federal government.

BART holds at least four drills annually with federal, state and local emergency responders and dozens of internal drills.

Yet Alameda County Sheriff Charles Plummer, the emergency services coordinator for much of Northern California, sharply criticized BART officials in a July letter for not participating in regional counterterrorism planning.

"We were doing our thing, and they certainly were doing their thing. And in this day and age, if we have an event it's going to involve everybody," said Cmdr. James Williams, who heads Alameda County's office of emergency services. Since Plummer's letter, he said, "We're learning now how to work together better."

Thursday, November 3, 2005

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