Doormen and truck drivers enlisted to watch for suspicious behavior

Training sessions prompt ways to improve security

August 07, 2005|By Stevenson Swanson | Stevenson Swanson,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

NEW YORK - They wear uniforms, and they certainly walk a beat. But these recruits in the campaign to prevent another terrorist attack don't carry guns or flash badges.

They are doormen, whose duties at thousands of apartment buildings across this city normally include such mundane chores as hailing cabs, announcing visitors and helping tenants with bulging shopping bags and balky baby strollers.

But as they tread their well-worn paths from lobby to street and back again, they notice the comings and goings in their neighborhoods, and they might pick up signals that something is amiss.

In the past year, about 6,000 doormen, superintendents and other workers at residential buildings have received four hours of training from police officers in the basics of spotting terrorism, part of a nationwide trend by unions, trade groups and homeland security agencies to beef up defenses with citizens' brigades. A similar effort to train Chicago doormen began this year, and truck drivers, recreational boaters and school bus drivers are among the other groups signing up.

Two recent series of bombings in London have served as sobering reminders that attacks can come at any time and will not necessarily be repeats of the catastrophic events of Sept. 11, 2001, involving hijacked passenger jets and thousands of deaths.

In response to the July 21 attempted attacks at London rapid-transit stations and aboard a double-decker bus, New York police started randomly searching bags at subway and commuter-rail stations.

But with an abundance of hard-to-protect "soft targets," such as museums, hotels, schools and bridges, public officials across the country acknowledge that they do not have the personnel or the money to guard against every threat. That has led them to endorse efforts such as the program to train doormen.

"The private sector is very important," New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said after the deadly July 7 London attacks. "That's a whole other set of eyes and ears."

Israel has proved the value of such awareness-raising efforts, according to homeland security expert Randall Larsen, who said 70 percent of would-be suicide bombers in that country are stopped because alert citizens spot them before they can carry out their deadly missions.

"But that doesn't mean we should be paranoid," said Larsen, director of the Institute for Homeland Security, a nonprofit research group. "Trying to find the balance between paranoia and complacency is a little bit tricky. The term is `measured vigilance' - don't go to extremes on either side."

Peter Santiago, who has been a doorman at a Madison Avenue condominium for 19 years, credits the training he received last year with making him more vigilant as he goes about his daily duties.

He recently noticed that the back end of a car that was idling in front of the building was low to the ground, as if its trunk were heavily loaded. At the mortuary next door, the funeral of popular singer Luther Vandross had drawn a large crowd, presenting a tempting target.

Santiago pointed out the car to a policeman, who told the driver to move.

"The course did wake us up," Santiago said. "Now, you look around more, and you're more aware. I don't want to get blown away. And I'd be the first one to go."

Procedures for handling parcels at the 20-story building were tightened after the seven-person staff completed its training, and the building's front door is now locked at all times.

"The only way into this building is by helicopter," said Peter Roach, the building's resident manager.

At a Midtown co-op apartment building, prospective buyers coming to open houses have to be escorted to and from the apartments by a real-estate broker. Before the building staff went through the training course, people could come and go at will, doorman Luis Vielman said.

"At the beginning, we got negative feedback," said Vielman, who has been a doorman for nine years. "But once you explain it and say, `Since 9/11 ... ' people understand."

Such measures may seem aimed more at tightening security than at preventing attacks, but law-enforcement officials have said that apartment buildings are potential targets. Jose Padilla, the former Chicago gang member being held as an "enemy combatant," reportedly studied ways to cause explosions in apartments using natural gas from kitchen stoves.

The training program, run jointly by the union that represents building workers and a landlord group, covers such topics as how to spot suspicious behavior and what to do to limit exposure to chemical, biological and radioactive material.

Union officials hope to have the 28,000 doormen, supers and other residential building employees that it represents trained in the next year.

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