You are an RTD bus driver, and like all of RTD's 2,397 employees, you have recently completed a federally mandated anti-terrorism training course titled "System Security Awareness for Transit Employees." Now you are pulling a graveyard shift on route 15, the notorious, endless traverse of East Colfax Avenue. You see a lone rider waiting at the Colfax and Downing Street stop. You pull over and he gets on. It's a warm spring night, but he's wearing a puffy ski jacket with tufts of down protruding from crisscrossing rips. He asks you repeatedly if this is route 666. He is wild-eyed and edgy. When the bus starts moving, he maniacally paces the aisle, launching into a sermon based loosely on the Book of Revelation. The other passengers shift uncomfortably in their seats and look away.
At the next stop, you reach for your trusty System Security Awareness student guide and thumb to page eleven. You consult the checklist on how to spot a terrorist.
"Overdressed for weather conditions." Check. "In the wrong place or appears lost." Check. "Pacing, nervous, or jumpy." Check. "Acting in a disorderly manner that alarms or disturbs others." Check. "Expressing an unusual level of interest in operations, personnel, equipment, or facilities." Not really.
Okay. That's four checks out of five. Now, the critical questions that you, a front-line defender of our nation's mass transit, have to ask yourself is, Terrorist or crackhead? Suspicious or explainable?
The evangelical-junkie scenario -- variations of which play out nightly on the 15 -- is not included in the curriculum for System Security Awareness, which was designed last year by the National Transit Institute at Rutgers University and funded by a $1.4 million Homeland Security grant. (The Federal Transit Authority and the Federal Bureau of Investigation also contributed to the course's design.) Instead, mass-transit operators are faced with more humdrum conundrums such as:
"A homeless person with a very distinct smell boards the bus at his usual stop. Several stops later, a customer approaches you about a pungent odor permeating the bus. Suspicious? Or explainable?"
"As you are conducting a quick sweep of your bus, you find an odd-looking package beneath one of the seats with a note attached. It is hard to read the note, but it says something about the corrupt city government. Suspicious? Or explainable?"
A minor provision of last year's Homeland Security Act requires every bus, light-rail and subway driver in America to sit through the roughly two-hour course, which is divided evenly by instruction (lectures and slides shows) and group exercises and worksheets.
In Denver, RTD supervisors trained by traveling National Transit Institute instructors teach the classes using standardized slide shows, outlines and workbooks. "Everyone in our system takes the course," says RTD spokesman Scott Reed. "Most of the current classes are for newly hired drivers, though we will be conducting retraining of existing drivers this summer."
While attendance is mandatory for public-transit employees, comprehension is not. "There are no tests," Reed says. "It's all worksheets and scenarios." The lack of exams is not all that distressing, given that the vast majority of the System Security Awareness course material derives from the No Shit, Sherlock school of deductive reasoning.
For example, according to a course handbook pilfered by Westword, a "suspicious package" is one that "matches something described in a threat," "has a threatening message attached," "is attached to the bus by magnets or duct tape" or "has a clock or timer or unusual wires and batteries attached."
RTD drivers also learn that bombs are the weapon of choice for terrorists who attack buses (news flash: see Tel Aviv, et al.) and that buses have made up precisely 32 percent of all international terrorism targets since 1920 (bridges and tunnels: 5 percent). This vital information is imparted via multicolored pie chart.
But wait -- there's more fun trivia: The outdoor blast radius of a cargo van packed with 4,000 pounds of explosives is 2,750 feet; Molotov cocktails were used by the Russian resistance against German tanks in World War II; and the FBI's official definition of terrorism (say it three times fast) is "The threat or use of force or violence to coerce a government or civilian population in pursuit of political or social objectives."
Never mind the semantics of, say, terrorist versus freedom fighter -- that's not a sanctioned topic of class discussion for System Security Awareness pupils, who are instead broken into groups to undergo the following "Information Gathering Scenario."
The directions are as follows: "Read the short scenario below. Then, using the information we just covered, work in your group to list the items you would report to your dispatcher or supervisor."
The text then reads like a stream-of-consciousness Beat poem, City Lights Bookstore, San Francisco, circa 1957:
It is 6 p.m. on a Monday. While on a run, Dispatch contacts you about a threat they received. The threat is related to a bomb being on a bus in a location that is on your route. You are asked to proceed to the next stop and conduct a quick sweep of your vehicle. The "package" is described as a small brown box, about the size of a loaf of bread.
While sweeping the bus, you see two gentlemen get off the bus and move quickly down the block.
There are three elderly women sitting together talking loudly. You notice bags under their seats.
A homeless man is trying to board the bus but keeps slipping on the steps.
You are across the street from the library, and there is a strong smell of garlic.
You notice a white van parked behind you.
You are asked not to alert the passengers of the situation at this time.
Next to the library is the YMCA.
There are three high school kids sitting in the rear of the bus.
Two fire engines pass your area with their lights and sirens on.
A bearded man holding a briefcase is looking out the window nervously.
Next to the YMCA is Tony's Pizza, and there are about 20 kids in front of the pizza place.
You find a loaf of bread on the floor.
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You see a brown box on a seat, but the woman next to it says it is hers.
Passengers are asking you what you are looking for.
The prevailing tone of the System Security Awareness is a creepy amalgam of dread and see-no-evil optimism, reminiscent of the "duck-and-cover" drills of the 1950s. At that time, schoolchildren were taught through catchy jingles that if they simply cowered beneath their school desks in the event of nuclear war, everything would be fine, just fine. Now the federal government compels our bus drivers to "harden the target" by "developing skill sets for observing, determining, and reporting people and things that are suspicious or out of place." Case in point: In the event of a CBR attack (Chemical, Biological or Radiological), drivers are drilled not to TEST (Taste, Eat, Touch or Smell), but to "remain calm, find a safe location and park" and "direct passengers to move upwind."
Flashing sign: Stop requested.