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Commuters, you have company

(The following story by Jonathan Schuppe appeared on the Star-Ledger website on March 18.)

NEWARK, N.J. -- As about 30,000 extra riders took trains and buses into New York City for yesterday's St. Patrick's Day parade, the New Jersey State Police deployed helicopter patrols, bomb-dog units and dozens of uniformed and plainclothes troopers to protect key transit points.

Riders might as well get used to the sight.

Such deployments are becoming more routine under a recent State Police reorganization that puts the agency at heightened alert status around the clock, with land, air and water patrols ready at a moment's notice. On days like yesterday, that means increased presence on trains and at stations -- particularly in light of last week's terrorist bombings in Madrid, which exposed the vulnerability of commuter rail systems.

"I want the public to know that we will be on those trains and doing everything we can to safeguard people, not just during level orange (terror alerts) but all the time," State Police Superintendent Rick Fuentes said.

Yesterday, uniformed and plainclothes officers from the State Police and NJ Transit patrolled stations and rode trains to and from New York City. Truck inspection units were posted at highways leading to New York bridges and tunnels. And the State Police provided a helicopter for NJ Transit Police Chief Joseph Bober to monitor activity along the tracks.

"What we do from the air in three hours would take us eight hours by car," Bober said.

Until last month, the State Police moved into action whenever the nation's terror alert rose to orange, signifying a high risk of terrorist attack. That required mobilizing disparate units -- from bomb-detecting dogs to marine units to truck inspection teams -- to sensitive sites around the state.

As more of those alerts occurred, Fuentes decided there had to be an easier way.

He took all those units, placed them under a single chain of command, and called it the Homeland Security Branch. The new setup went into effect Feb. 28. All the units are now on permanent high-alert status, Fuentes said.

"God forbid something happens, our resources are already in the field," Fuentes said. "That means minutes compared to hours in terms of response time."

The Homeland Security Branch has two sections: special operations and emergency management. The 500 or so troopers in the branch team up with other agencies, including local police departments, NJ Transit and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

The new branch's first major mobilization was ordered in response to last week's attacks in Madrid. The second came yesterday, when the number of train and bus riders, normally 450,000 a day, was expected to jump by 30,000.

"At any large gathering of people, we realize that's an opportunity for someone to cause damage," said Capt. Bill Malast, commander of the State Police's special operations section. "On days of major events, we'll beef up and be more visible to discourage anyone from trying to attack mass numbers of people."

The day passed without incident. "The first real test is still ahead of us," Malast said. "That day has yet to come."

Thursday, March 18, 2004

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