Road warriors: School bus drivers fight terrorism
By Adam Reiss
Brooklyn bus drivers take tips from Joe Van Aken on watching out for activites that might signal terrorism.
BROOKLYN, New York -- School bus drivers around the country are being trained to be the eyes and ears on the road and to watch for potential terrorists, in a program financed by the Homeland Security Department.
Designers of the program, called School Bus Watch, want to turn 600,000 drivers into an army of observers.
"We are going to teach you how to identify, evaluate, and record unusual activity," instructor Joe Van Aken tells his class of 20 school bus drivers in Brooklyn, New York.
Aken, a bus driver himself, does not want these drivers to confront anyone suspicious but to call the authorities. The more eyes on the road the safer we will all be, he tells his pupils.
It's not just bus drivers on the front lines in the fight against terrorism. Bank tellers, ham radio operators and truckers also are being asked by Homeland Security to be on the lookout.
The department wants the bus drivers to report any suspicious activity, regardless of how small. If an attack is imminent or has just occurred it is important for bus drivers to get the children out of harm's way and to contact their dispatcher or 911 immediately. They, in turn, will direct that information to a national analysis center.
The new effort is part of Highway Watch, a safety program run by the American Trucking Association and financed since 2003 with $50 million from Homeland Security. So far, tens of thousands of bus operators have been trained around the country.
Officials say schools and buses are considered "soft" targets for terrorists, and an attack on them could have huge symbolic impact and lead to many casualties and spectacular images.
To underscore the point, instructors remind drivers of the 2004 attack in Beslan, Russia, where terrorists stormed and occupied a school. Before the crisis ended in a storm of gunfire and explosions, 331 adults and children were dead.
In Virginia, bus drivers were taught how to identify and evaluate unusual activity. What drew your attention to this person in the first place? Is someone unfamiliar taking photographs or drawing sketches of the area? Is the person asking a lot of questions about the bus route?
"The terrorist is not going to be able to do some of their casing and rehearsal activity without being detected by one of you," Van Aken told the drivers in his class. The more people who are watching, he said, the safer the community would be.
Drivers also were shown how to inspect their buses, not just as part of routine maintenance, but also for tampering.
Instructors are pleased by the reception they are getting from interested drivers.
"It's all new to me," said Donald Stuart, a bus driver in Staten Island, New York. "But everyone should do it, not just bus drivers."
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