Friday, June 29, 2007

Situational Awareness

Kudos to that British ambulance crew, who foiled an apparent car-bombing attack in London's West End early today.

The ambulance crew, dispatched to treat an individual at a nightclub in the area, spotted smoke in the car and alerted police. They found a green metallic Mercedes rigged to explode, with more than 60 liters of gasoline, propane cylinders and nails scattered in the floorboard. The area was subsequently evacuated, and the Metropolitan Police bomb squad manually defused the explosive device. The potential carnage from the car bomb could have been devastating.

According to Sky News, a eyewitness told police that a man crashed the vehicle into trash bins near the nightclub before the alarm was raised. British counter-terrorism officials tell the BBC that "international elements" are believed to be involved in the plot.

Today's close call in London reminds us of the importance of situational awareness--and first responders--in dealing with the terrorist threat. That British ambulance crew saw something amiss with that Mercedes and summoned police, preventing a terrible tragedy. They resisted the temptation to focus solely on their assigned task--treating that nightclub guest--and leave the matter of a suspicious car to someone else.

Given similar circumstances, we can only hope that EMTs in the U.S. would do the same thing. And in some locations--notably New York City--I believe they would. But in other communities, I have my doubts. I frequently shop at a big box retail outlet not far from my home. The outlet follows the chain's retailing model; a 200,000 square-foot store, with a multi-acre parking lot in front. More than two months ago, I spotted a Dodge Dynasty in the lot with a flat front tire. The car sat there for months in the same location, no sign of the owner, and no apparent effort to fix the flat or remove the car. Being the suspicious type, I contacted the local cops, who told me it was a store matter; various managers at the retail outlet thanked me for calling, and told me (in polite terms) not to worry about it.

The car finally disappeared, but that didn't alleviate my concerns. While the car with a flat tire probably belonged to a shopper or store employee, there's also the outside chance that it could have been a "dry run" by folks who would do us harm. A car bomb outside a big box could also produce heavy casualties, particularly if the blast were timed for a peak shopping hour in the late afternoon, or on a weekend. Parking a disabled car in the lot for a few weeks is an excellent test of store security practices. If you won't move a car that's been sitting there for weeks, you'll probably ignore a car that has smoke fumes visible on the inside, or a back-end sitting low to the ground--warning signs of a potential car bomb.

In the Age of Terror, two lessons are abundantly clear: First, report all suspicious activity, and secondly don't assume that "routine" events are always benign. That British ambulance crew certainly passed the situational awareness test this morning, and saved countless lives in the process. I've got my doubts about the managers and security staff at that big box store in my neighborhood.


gr8scott said...

You spotted a Dodge WITH a front tire? You're right - that is suspicious.

Spook86 said...

Good catch..I omitted the word flat. Should have read "flat front tire."

SwampWoman said...

Thank goodness this latest rash of bombings (so far, knock on wood) has been perpetrated by The Gang that Couldn't Build a Bomb. A lot of people are laughing this off and pooh poohing governmental concerns but the fact remains that these were intended to cause mass casualties.

Spook86 said...

And the fact remains that, if key members of the cell go uncaught, they won't make the same mistakes twice.

DebbieKinIL said...

Thanks for the awareness tips. Never thought about any of these situations.

The MSM news is saying looks like the beginning of a lot more attacks this summer.

Dan said...

You know, I ride the Washington Metro every day to work, and each time I step on the train, I think to myself, "Is this the day?" Because I know it's only a matter of time before the DC subway system is hit by terrorists.

With thoughts like these running through my head, I'm naturally vigilant. About 6 weeks ago, I was on the Orange line train under downtown DC. There were two Arab men wearing rucksacks (the big, camper style backpacks) standing in the center of the train by the door. Naturally, this was enough to perk my attention. I put down my book, and watched them.

A few minutes into the ride, we came to a stop at the Smithsonian station. One of the men left his backpack on the ground, and literally ran off the train. My heart literally stopped beating (before firing up to about 100bpm) and I got extremely nervous.

I walked up to the remaining man (I was wearing a suit, and probably looked like an authority) and asked him point blank: "Sir, is that your bag?" pointing to the abandoned bag at his feet. I couldn't have been talking to anyone else, yet the guy refused to acknowledge me at all. I asked him again, and he looked straight ahead.

At this point, passengers began to subtly move away from the man. I was about to grab the bag myself when he finally looked at me and said, "Yes. That's my bag." Then he picked it up and held onto it.

I didn't know quite what to do at that point, so I just said, "Make sure you keep you bag in your possession, Sir." I got off at the next stop and notified the Metro station manager who looked at me like I was a racist idiot. He didn't write anything down or even act like the information was worth anything.

However, his reaction was not what bothered me the most. It was the utter indifference of the passengers on the train to even question this guy after his buddy ran off the train without a word, leaving his overstuffed backpack behind.

We've been so conditioned now to not suspect anyone who might fit a certain profile out of fear of being labeled a racist (or worse).

I'm convinced I witnessed a dry run of sorts that day. I'm sorry to say that even in the Nation's capital, where residents walk with targets on their back, the likelihood of an attack happening under our noses is as high as it ever was.

Lorenzo aka erudito said...

Also, London has been a terror target for decades, starting with the IRA, which raises awareness generally.

Dan said...

Raises awareness, or induces apathy.