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Security becomes a way of life

Safeguards bring confidence while underscoring need for constant vigilance

By Peter J. Howe, Globe Staff, 9/3/2002

   
Boston harbor
Some of the new Coast Guard vessels patrolling the harbor are heavily armed, but small enough to get into tight spots.


MBTA
The black trash cans on the T's platforms are bomb-resistant.


Pilgrim
A National Guardsman keeps watch at the nuclear plant in Plymouth.


Logan Airport
Vehicles entering Terminal B are inspected by security. (Globe Staff Photos / David L. Ryan)

At first, the encounters were startling, even disturbing: an aggressive frisking at Logan Airport, the glint of a carbine barrel on a city street, new metal detectors and X-ray machines screening the public at the State House.

As the year since Sept. 11 has unfolded, however, security has blended into the background of Greater Boston. Few commuters may even be aware that new trash cans in MBTA subway stations are bomb resistant. Out in the wilds of the Wachusett Reservoir, birdwatchers might see National Guard troops on patrol, but there's little tension in the air. Bicyclists whistling down Rocky Hill Road pay little attention to the sandbagged bunkers at the entrances of Plymouth's Pilgrim nuclear facility.

Security is the new normal. It's hardly worth remarking on. But one year after Sept. 11, how secure are we really?

A Globe survey of two dozen area power, water, and telecommunications utilities; government agencies; and overseers of key public facilities found that every one has taken at least some steps to improve its ability to resist and react to terrorism or sabotage. In some cases they are spending millions of dollars.

Private businesses have poured millions more dollars into beefed-up checkpoints, mail screening, increased protection of computer networks against hackers, and other preventatives.

All these efforts have indeed made us more secure, officials say - at least in the sense of making it more likely that imaginable threats to Hub residents will be detected and prevented. But highly visible efforts may only underscore the impossibility of completely protecting a highly mobile society that cherishes personal freedom.

And some of the most prominent security measures implemented after Sept. 11 - around-the-clock

State Police stationed in the Prudential Center tunnels, the closure of the Quabbin Reservoir visitors' center, wartime-footing Coast Guard patrols of Boston Harbor - have proved to be unsustainable financially and politically and have been reduced or abandoned.

"Obviously we're more secure today than we were on Sept. 11, even if some government agencies and industries are still in denial and are not making the kinds of changes we need to respond to the terrorist threat," said US Representative Edward J. Markey, the Malden Democrat who is the state's senior congressman and a leading crusader for stronger antiterrorism measures by the nuclear, energy, and chemical industries.

"The reality that every American has to live with is that we can't protect everything from every conceivable attack," Markey said. "There is a higher confidence level that the average American has, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be vigilant on a continuing basis."

Peter Judge of the Massachusetts Emergency Management Association, the state agency that would play a key role in handling the response to a terror strike, expresses confidence in the steps that crucial Bay State infrastructure providers have taken.

"From a general perspective, we're very pleased with what we've seen," Judge said. "As a general rule, I think a lot of them didn't have to do a lot to get there. I didn't see a lot of wholesale 'How can we do things?' It was, 'How can we do things better?' Everybody has taken this thing very seriously. People aren't looking for shortcuts."

The State Police, for instance, have boosted their vigilance, said Captain Robert Bird of the Massachusetts State Police. "We just have to be more cognizant, more alert, so that we'll see a piece of a puzzle that doesn't quite fit and could be the beginning of something extraordinary, like a terrorist attack."

In the last year, the department has put new emphasis on collecting "field intelligence forms" from troopers making routine highway stops and arrests.

Before Sept. 11, a trooper arresting a driver with a counterfeit license might have just brought charges; today, information is sent to detectives who would check to see whether that driver - or people who live at the same address - also have been found to have bogus licenses, a potential alert to a terrorist cell.

Sept. 11 was also a major impetus for convening the first State Police trooper cadet class in nearly two years, a group of 122 new troopers who graduated Aug. 23 and have brought the agency back up to a near-record strength of 2,363 officers as of late last month. All 2,363 have undergone in the last several months training in handling biological, chemical, and radiological weapons, and have been issued advanced gas masks to deal with those threats.

Theodore A. Oatis, a senior executive with the Chiofaro Co., owners of Boston's landmark International Place office towers, has spent dozens of hours in the last year working to secure the building with new identification cards for tenants as well as with surveillance cameras and other security measures.

"I definitely think that office buildings and airports are safer, but I don't think outside of office buildings and airports anything has changed much. I would have expected that we'd experience more changes, more visible changes," Oatis said, but added: "I'm comfortable with it. To make this country [totally] secure against terrorism is hard to imagine, because it would change our way of life more than any other country in the world."

Michael Mulhern, general manager of the MBTA, said he can tick off a long list of changes the T has made: the distinctive new trash cans designed to deflect the blast of a bomb upward, away from commuters standing on a platform; 22 new T police officers deployed since Sept. 11; training exercises over the last year for more than 1,500 subway and station employees on how to handle an underground biochemical attack.

But Mulhern said he remains daunted by the scope of the ongoing threat and the multitude of ways terrorists could attack the T and its 700,000 daily riders.

"What we've learned about these terrorists is that they use very low-tech but high-concept approaches to disrupt your system," Mulhern said. "We know these guys like to attack symbols, and there are a lot of symbols that exist in Greater Boston. We also know that these folks are very patient and very methodical, and we understand that they may have studied us for a long time."

Among key area public facilities, the T has been one of the biggest spenders on security improvements, including launching a $40 million project to build a systemwide network linking surveillance cameras and intrusion-detection systems at stations to a central command post. Consultants hired by the T have developed a 250-point list of security improvements the agency has begun working through.

The Massachusetts Port Authority, under particular scrutiny because the two airplanes used to level the World Trade Center took off from Logan International Airport, which is overseen by Massport, estimates it is committing $100 million in capital expenditures and $20 million in increased annual spending for security, including an increase in its State Police contingent from 80 to 140 troopers.

The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, which provides water to more than 2.2 million area homes and businesses, expects by late next year to complete the bulk of a $1.4 billion project to build an aqueduct and covered storage tanks that will replace open-air reservoirs and hold more than 150 million gallons.

Begun in the mid-1990s - mainly to meet federal environmental standards - the MWRA projects have taken on new focus and urgency as ways to protect the area's water supply from poisoning or from sabotage of the leaky, vulnerable 50-year-old aqueduct that supplies most of Greater Boston's water.

Beyond the big-ticket improvements, "There have been literally hundreds of things done . . . a lot of blocking and tackling," said MWRA executive director Frederick A. Laskey. Some have come as a result of a federally funded $115,000 security assessment last year. These include welding shut hundreds of hatches and manholes, installing a backup microwave communications network, and deploying dozens of new gates and 300 jersey barriers to thwart a truck bomb from reaching vital waterworks facilities.

Two of the MWRA's best defenses against a terrorist strike on major water facilities are the sheer size of the Wachusett and Quabbin reservoirs, which would dilute anything short of trainloads of poison or biological or nuclear waste, and the fact that gravity, not electric pumps, delivers the bulk of water.

Officials in charge of an equally crucial cornerstone of modern life, electricity, say they also have boosted security measures and contingency plans.

Soon after Sept. 11, ISO-New England, the Holyoke-based entity that operates the six-state power grid, upgraded a backup grid command post to make it fully capable of replacing the Holyoke operations center. ISO-New England officials also developed extensive plans for how they would cope with, for example, geopolitical events cutting off oil and gas supplies for area power plants.

Stephen G. Whitley, ISO's chief operating officer, said many of the what-if disaster plans that have been developed build on blueprints made in 1999 for coping with potential havoc from the "Y2K" computer bug. "The first thing we did was dust off our Y2K action plan," Whitley said. "It was an excellent primer."

NStar and Massachusetts Electric, the state's two largest utilities, also say they have added security patrols and taken steps they wish to keep confidential to improve physical security of their power lines and substations.

ISO has also moved to better secure and remove from public circulation maps detailing the locations of key electric and energy facilities - a step the T and Massachusetts Highway Department have also taken.

"We are very careful who sees designs and plans of bridges and tunnels" that once were generally available to the public, said John Cogliano, the acting Highway Department commissioner. Cogliano added that the department "has compiled a list of our strategic structures" that could be most vulnerable to terror attacks, a list he says "understandably we shouldn't discuss."

Highway Department has also outfitted all 36 of its bridge inspectors with walkie-talkie cell phones.

"Ninety percent of combating terrorism is making sure that people pay attention," said the T's Mulhern. "We know the heart of the issue is, 'How do we make it easier for our employees to pay attention?' "

For overseers of public facilities such as Mulhern, establishing systems and procedures to make it easier to "pay attention" to suspicious people, vehicles, packages, and the like is one thing. The harder question is how to sustain a level of vigilance, tinged by some paranoia, that runs counter to most Americans' easygoing, optimistic, live-and-let-live ethic. Every month that passes with perhaps some false alarms but nothing close to even a faint echo of the catastrophe of Sept. 11 only makes that vigilance harder.

Oatis, the International Place executive, said he is already seeing some tension between tenants at his building saying, "Give me a break" and relax security procedures, and most others insisting, "Don't you dare." It's the same clash bubbling throughout American society after a year of extraordinary security measures.

"The question is, what does the future hold?" Oatis said. "Quietly, most everybody expects something else to happen. When that happens, the standards are going to change again. I don't know how we can possibly prepare ourselves, really, for terrorism."

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 9/3/2002.
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