TSA checks trucks, recruits for First Observer

After the Transportation Security Administration conducted the largest Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response operation on trucks and buses in its history, the agency discussed the event in a “myth buster” blog.

The Oct. 25 posting “TSA Not Setting up Checkpoints on Tennessee Highways,” aimed to dispel rumors officials had checked truckers at several locations. The two-day safety enforcement and awareness exercise was conducted on vehicles at five Interstate scale complexes and two regional bus terminals.

“TSA officers did not physically screen drivers during this exercise as erroneously reported,” the blog stated. “The actual vehicle inspections were conducted by the Tennessee State Highway Patrol, just the same as they are done every day.”

Agency officials, along with Tennessee’s Department of Safety and Homeland Security and other federal and state agency employees, inspected vehicles for security threats, the agency reported.

It was not Tennessee’s first VIPR exercise, state safety and homeland security representatives said. TSA and state operational funding paid for the Oct. 18-20 event and more VIPR exercises might be in Tennessee’s future.

The TSA said its officers distributed brochures to truckers on the First Observer Highway Security Program, which encourages drivers to report suspicious activity or items. Increasing program awareness was a key part of the exercise, state officials said.

In June 2008, the TSA awarded a $15.5 million Trucking Security Program grant to HMS Co. of Washington, D.C. to administer an anti-terrorism and security awareness program for highway professionals. HMS was to create and manage a call center and a Highway Information Sharing and Analysis Center for transportation workers to share security information with law enforcement and other first responders.

The TSA did not respond to several requests made since Oct. 25 for additional program information.

During a congressional hearing last September, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano said the agency is providing “through its First Observer program, training for thousands of state and local law enforcement personnel and private sector employees on how best to observe, assess, and report suspicious behavior at transportation and critical infrastructure sites and facilities across the country.”

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Days earlier, William Arrington, head of TSA‘s Highway and Motor Carrier Division, had advocated transportation workers undergo the program’s free training.

Last June, TSA Administrator John Pistole reported to a congressional committee that 200,000 individuals had received program training.

DHS did not provide other trucking grant awards for FY 2010. A congressional committee report on that year’s appropriations noted the balance of $8 million allotted for trucking industry security grants for FY 2009 was rescinded. Only $2.2 million was awarded in 2009 because of “lack of worthy applications,” according to a Congressional Research Service report.

In 1998, the American Trucking Associations established the Highway Watch program to train transportation workers to safeguard roads and communities for which it received U.S. Department of Transportation funding.

In 2003, the TSA began funding an expanded Highway Watch and granted the association $63 million for the program from 2003-2007.