One month after a 29-year-old ISIS sympathizer drove a rented truck down a Manhattan bicycle path, killing eight people and injuring a dozen more, major metropolitan areas around the country are frantically working to conduct inventories and risk assessments of major pedestrian thoroughfares that could be targeted by vehicle ramming attacks.
“Right now, the trumpets have sounded among many of the participating stakeholders and [Urban Area Security Initiative] participants in the Los Angeles-Long Beach area to survey all greenbelts, pedestrian and bicycle pathways that can potentially be accessed with vehicles, for vulnerabilities,” said Roland Sprewell, a Critical Infrastructure Assessor/Intelligence Liaison & Fire Captain at Los Angeles County Fire Department. “It’s a mammoth undertaking.”
Large vehicles and rental trucks have been used by ISIS with great success in a string of recent attacks, including those in Barcelona, Charlottesville, London, Stockholm and Nice, France. And while the NYPD was quick to reassure the public that it had been working with local community and industry leaders to identify vulnerabilities, the ease with which the attacker was able to drive his rented Home Depot truck onto the pedestrian bike path raises questions about the urgency behind those threat assessments.
But with Manhattan now added to what was already a growing attack trend, critical infrastructure protection officials in major urban areas are urgently investigating additional security measures that may be necessary. The efforts are part of a new focus on changing the way the nation approaches risk assessments across the transportation infrastructure. Although officials once approached transportation infrastructure as too complex to secure, some are now actively proposing new thinking about defending against vehicle ramming attacks.
Earlier this month, at the National Fusion Center Association Annual Training Event in Washington, D.C., one of the conversations centered on new ways to protect main strips or thoroughfares, where many of the nightlife establishments and sidewalk cafes dominate.
“As is the case here in LA, many cities throughout the country haven’t even given much thought to placing decorative bollards along the sidewalk of these heavily populated areas,” Sprewell said. “On particularly busy nights, introducing traffic calming measures into popular night spots might be an inconvenience to those trying to make it home, but in the big scheme of things it may be just one method of preventing a potential vehicle ramming incident and a huge deterrent to someone with those intentions. This also allows law enforcement to get ‘eyes on’ potential suspects and vehicles that frequent the area and are conducting surveillance.”
But for those cities and counties that are taking steps to get ahead of the next incident, like Los Angeles County, it is by no means a simple task.
“The County of Los Angeles area represents more than 4,000 square miles. Fortunately, we have much of the information already in our databases. However, the challenge is not accounting for where those pathways are, but determining their vulnerabilities,” Sprewell said. “After all, our CIP Unit is only seven strong and our DHS PSA’s are already juggling enough balls. So, we plan to enlist the help of many of the law enforcement agencies in those jurisdictions to do the foot work for us. Then we can make recommendations on counter measures,” he said.
The Need For Training and Answers
According to Sprewell, the nation’s first responders (i.e. street patrol officers, firefighters, paramedics) desperately need training in how to recognize basic vulnerabilities.
“There’s an assumption that just because a law enforcement officer is working a security detail at a concert or special event that they automatically can recognize potential vulnerabilities. This couldn’t be further from the truth,” said Sprewell. “I can’t tell you how many events and emergency responses that I’ve gone to where I had to bring this situational awareness to bear. This training can and should be provided by the fusion centers because of the level of training and expertise most CIP cells have in this arena. Also, those CIP cells are usually staffed by other cops who can appropriately communicate the areas of concern.”
Michael Pena, the executive vice president for Homeland Security Solutions at Apprio, Inc. who served as an officer with the New York City Fire Department’s Special Operations Command on 9/11, agrees that more training is necessary, especially for the public. However, increasing public vigilance is also a challenge that may require new approaches.
“Continuing to educate the public in ‘If you see something, say something’ has shown to be an effective tool for law enforcement and the intelligence community, but how can it be improved and expanded?” asked Pena. “Just having folks be aware of their surroundings and not be constantly looking at their cell phones is a challenge,” he said.
“Each hurricane season, the experts communicate the dangers of sheltering in place in a high-risk area but year after year first responders have to risk their own lives to save others. Is now the time to implement required training that could be tied to drivers’ licenses or schools, for example? Should we provide awareness 101 training or even basic first aid as a requirement?”
For Pena, there are more questions than answers right now when it comes to the massive undertaking of hardening pedestrian thoroughfares against terrorist attacks involving vehicles.
“As time and incidents go on, we are slowly encapsulating ourselves. Starting with bollards and standoff distances around building after the Oklahoma City bombing, to installing bollards and barriers to protect pedestrians from vehicle attacks. At what point do we stop surrounding ourselves with stationary protection that limits our own ability to maneuver?” asked Pena.
“Should we continue to delay travelers with more enhanced levels of security or pre-screen everyone before they travel to reduce risk? At what point do we start impinging on civil liberties in order to protect people or making it too difficult for tourists to visit?”
Pena raises yet another major concern for homeland security professionals. Can we actually protect large public gatherings? “We have more leverage at the ground level but what about areas surrounded by high-rise buildings?” asked Pena. “And can we change the mindset in rural America that ‘it can’t happen here?'”
Editor’s Note: Roland Sprewell and Michael Pena are members of the Homeland Security Magazine Editorial Advisory Board.