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MTA trains workers to be vigilant for terrorism

(The following article by Jean Guccione was posted on the Los Angeles Times website on August 17.)

LOS ANGELES -- When she boards the train each workday, Lorraine Martinez looks around for suspicious packages and passengers behaving strangely.

Martinez, an office clerk, said she's become more attentive in recent months. She's among the thousands of Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority employees enlisted to keep a watchful eye on public transit.

"Everybody's got a safety responsibility here," said Roger Snoble, the MTA's chief executive. "And when you are on the system, everybody's eyes and ears are part" of keeping that system's buses and trains safe.

MTA officials believe their greatest weapons in preventing terrorism are already on the payroll: The men and women who drive and repair buses, sell monthly passes and help to administer the $3-billion-a-year transit authority.

To prepare them, transit officials are requiring all 10,000 Metro employees to complete a one-hour Transit Terrorism Awareness class. They also have distributed a pocket-sized employee guide for dealing with suspicious people and packages.

"Many times, eyes and ears are the best deterrents" against transit terrorism, Snoble said. "They can detect odd behavior before something happens."

The classes are part of a broader effort by Metro to increase security on its buses and trains in the wake of terrorist attacks elsewhere. The agency has spent $9 million so far installing hundreds of security cameras, employing bomb-sniffing dogs and enhancing its underground gas-detection system.

Martinez and 12 other employees listened Wednesday as two county sheriff's deputies explained how to distinguish between an "unattended" bag and a "suspicious" package.

Sheriff's Deputy Ted Broadston showed the class a silver briefcase and asked if it was suspicious. A few hands went up.

Then, he set the scene: A businessman waiting for the train put down the briefcase so he could read the paper. Startled when the train approached, he boarded and left the case.

With the added information, most of the class determined the man merely forgot his bag. One woman thought it unlikely.

"Usually the average person wants to keep their personal belongings close to them," she reasoned. "And sure, we lose something every now and then, but something as big as a briefcase, that's personal, you don't just go off and leave it."

In a different scenario, the same businessman clutched the handle of the silver briefcase until the train arrived. When the train doors opened, he put the case down and walked on.

This time, the class agreed, the man's actions seemed odd.

"It's not the item," Broadston told them. "It's the circumstances of how it got there."

There are no clear-cut rules in determining when something is suspicious, he said.

"If it doesn't feel right to you, then report it," his partner, Deputy Remon Girgis, advised.

They urged employees to report passengers taking photographs of subway tunnels or others just lurking around.

"Are they lost?" Broadston asked.

"Usually," a woman in the class answered.

To make that distinction, the deputy suggested employees ask people they see wandering around if they need help.

Martinez, who works in the agency's human relations department, said she became a vigilant commuter even before she took the class. "I am more observant now," she said. "Before, I would jump on the train, put my radio on and not pay attention to anything else."

Martinez recognizes most of the Metrolink passengers on the 80-minute commute from her Rialto home to Metro offices in downtown Los Angeles.

On a recent commute, she said she and a friend reported a passenger who was "acting funny" to the train's conductor.

The conductor asked the man a few questions. A few stops later, the man got off the train.

Martinez doesn't know if she stopped any kind of threat.

"We never saw him again on the train," she said. "We made him aware that we knew he looked suspicious to us."

Thursday, August 17, 2006

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