While terrorism in the United States has primarily focused on the airline industry, Americans are becoming increasingly concerned that mass transit systems might be the next target. In Washington DC, the Metro subway system is taking measures to prevent and prepares for a terrorist attack.
According to the DC Metro Transit Authority, on an average weekday, about 600,000 people take the Metro, DC's light rail commuter system.
Because of the large numbers of people using public transportation, The Metro Transit Authority, in cooperation with the Red Cross and the Office of Homeland Security, recently announced plans to work together to help secure DC's mass transit system and prepare for a possible terrorist attack. Michael Brown, an undersecretary at the Homeland Security department, says commuters can help by staying informed and making a plan.
"I think that two things happen by human nature," he says. "If we don't know what's going on, we fear that. And if we're not ready for the crisis, then we panic when it occurs. So the best things we can do to help our fellow passengers, to help our families and everyone else, is to know what we need to do before the crisis occurs."
While many of the commuters I spoke to did not have an alternative route planned, new technology for DC's Metro system may help take of that problem. The Metro's travel planning system is being upgraded to help commuters plan alternate routes, if Metro stations are disabled or bus routes canceled. This real-time information will be available on the Internet or by telephone.
"5 O'Clock PM, is that right? My last question. How would you like to travel - by bus only, rail only, or it doesn't matter? Please hold while I get your fastest route," says a recording from the Metro system.
Some efforts being made to prevent terrorism in the first place include the placement of more cameras on metro platforms, trained staff to spot suspicious behavior, and additional police patrols. The D.C. Metro System also has portable radiation detectors and bomb sniffing dogs. Officer Eric Croon, for example, can often be seen patrolling Metro stations with his sidekick.
"This is my canine partner scratching here, Canine Coda. We've been together approximately 10 months. She's a bomb detection dog," explains Officer Croon. "What we do is we go into stations and do high visibility sweeps and behind the scenes sweeps in places like tunnels, shafts, back rooms etc. We have a whole unit of 15 dogs. Some of them are narcotics trained and some of them patrol trained. We've been doing this since 1981."
If a bomb were to be detected, Officer Croon says that he and Coda would call in a bomb squad to handle the threat and look for more bombs in the area. Specific dogs, like Coda, are trained to detect explosives. Other dogs search for drugs. In addition, air sampler machines check for unsafe chemicals or contaminants in the air at underground Metrorail stations.
What about the Metrorail cars themselves? Do they have any additional protection built-in? According to Polly Hanson, Chief of the Metro Transit Police, fires and preventative measures were considered when the railcars were first designed.
"Our trains are made with fire retardant materials, our operators are trained, we have backup power that allows lighting and the doors to be opened so it's a discussion of safety features and things that make this system much safer than what people might be thinking it is," says Polly Hanson.
While the DC Metro Transit Authority has taken steps to increase security, they still stress that commuters should have a plan of action and be prepared for the worst. Alternate routes home are important. They also add that an informed commuter would more likely be safely rescued from a potentially dangerous situation.