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A nose for transit threats

(The following article by Jeff Ristine was posted on the San Diego Union-Tribune website on January 11.)

SAN DIEGO, Calif. -- Bino is an explosives-sniffing German shepherd for the Metropolitan Transit System. That’s all he’s trained to do and that’s all he’s expected to do, but not all passengers know that.

When two young men getting off an Orange Line trolley at the 12th-and-Imperial station saw Bino and his handler, Sgt. Len Parham, one thrust his hand in his pocket and walked briskly away, glancing nervously over his shoulder.

“Yeah, he’s got marijuana,” Parham said with a chuckle.

It turns out that Parham and Bino get a lot of that on patrol. “People come past me and take off running. They don’t know what kind of a dog I have.”

What Parham has is the kind of dog that represents one of the nation’s latest initiatives against any terrorist threat to public transit.

Parham, Bino and two other dog-and-handler teams have been patrolling the Metropolitan Transit System since September. They ride trolleys and buses, and snoop around bags and packages, jackets, parking lots, waste receptacles and other possible hiding places for a bomb.

One recent morning at the San Ysidro terminus of the Blue Line, Bino spotted a box wrapped with a cord next to a man sitting on a bench. Probably nothing, but Bino took two or three seconds to check it out.

“Good job, buddy, good job,” Parham said, and it was on to the next bench.

The teams were funded for the MTS and 12 other transit organizations by the Transportation Security Administration, better known for its post-Sept. 11 presence at airport-terminal checkpoints.

Terrorist bombings of a train in Madrid, Spain, and subways and a bus in London spurred the federal agency to act in a broader context. Cities were selected based on ridership in transit systems, security threats and interest in participating.

“Our ultimate goal is to prevent the introduction of an explosive device into any of our transportation systems, whether it’s aviation or mass transit, and keep the traveling public as safe as they expect to be,” said David Kontny, director of the National Explosives Detection Canine Team Program.

The dogs patrol trolleys daily and have been called to investigate packages or other perceived threats more than a dozen times. The transit agency’s agreement with the TSA requires the teams to assist, when asked, on calls from police and other law enforcement agencies.

Sniffing out problems

In September, Bino sniffed into suspicious equipment at the Old Town Transit Center that had shut down operations.

“My dog proved to me it was nothing” in about five minutes, Parham said with pride. Investigators took a more exhaustive approach and needed a few hours to determine there was no threat. The material proved to be parts changed out from a malfunctioning restroom hand dryer.

In October, Bino and Parham helped respond to an e-mail bomb hoax that evacuated San Diego State University for most of a day. Dogs from five other agencies also responded, combing through stack after stack of books but finding nothing.

In another October incident, Parham took Bino to investigate a device left in a transit service yard, near a transformer box, that looked like a pipe bomb. Someone had added red, blue and yellow wires to a couple of large batteries, then stuck the wires into the ground.

“My dog laughed at it,” Parham said, his expression for Bino’s way of dismissing something as a threat.

Had it been a real bomb, Bino would have sat and stared at it or performed what Parham calls a “dance,” two forms of dog body language he has learned to interpret. He and his dog train with materials that have a genuine explosive signature in a secluded section of the trolley yard.

On a more routine basis, Bino accompanies Parham on trolley cars doing spot checks for tickets, passes and transfers.

At trolley stations, he sniffs around newspaper vending machines and mailboxes, planters and bushes. He checks out bags and purses, often to the amusement of their owners, and sticks his nose into shopping bags. He smells the arm of a jacket being carried by a young woman, who was chatting with friends and oblivious to the impromptu inspection.

All this occurred while Bino wasn’t even in full work mode. After putting the dog in a special pose and issuing a command, Parham said, “You’ll see the difference – he’s just ready to go.”

Bino was getting smiles from children on the trolley and curious glances from adults, but that’s the extent of the interaction. Parham doesn’t let people pet Bino, who will growl if anyone tries.

“He’s all work, no play,” Parham said.

That’s true even at Parham’s Mira Mesa home, where Bino shares space with TeeTee, a teacup poodle belonging to Parham’s wife, Rhonda. Even Parham’s two teenage sons don’t touch Bino.

Not ‘warm and fuzzy’

Parham was recruited from the transit-police ranks to apply to become a handler. Not being a dog lover, he was unsure if he wanted to do it at first.

“Someone of his nature is actually better for a dog team,” said Bill Burke, director of security for the MTS. “He can view their working relationship much better than someone who thinks they need to be warm and fuzzy with the dog.”

The transit agency gets about $120,000 a year from the Transportation Security Administration, which covers all expenses for the three teams except the transit employees’ salary. This is the first year of a five-year contract.

Parham and two colleagues trained for 10 weeks at a TSA facility at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. They received more training in San Diego before getting certified.

“What we really like about the canine teams is they are flexible and they are dependable,” said Nico Melendez, a TSA spokesman. “If something comes up and we need them somewhere else, we can be where we need them in a very short time.”

Elsewhere in California, dog teams have been deployed on the Metrolink transit system, a regional commuter rail network serving Los Angeles and surrounding counties, and BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit), the commuter rail service for San Francisco and the East Bay area. The dogs haven’t had a chance to become real heroes yet; no genuine explosive threats have arisen.

“We are out there and visible,” Parham said. “It’s definitely a deterrent.”

Thursday, January 11, 2007

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