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Politics & Government
Fri March 29, 2013
Security Changes At Federal Buildings
Something changed this week at three of the most secure buildings in Boston, and it happened without any fanfare or news conferences. Almost two years after the nation's color-coded terror alert system was phased out, some security procedures at three federal buildings have gone away. As a result, you're no longer required to take off your coat, shoes or belt when entering three federal buildings in Boston. This change is expected to be standardized at nearly every federal facility in the United States.
Federal buildings became a major terrorist target as America woke up on an ordinary Wednesday in April 1995. Explosions ripped through the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City. The blast killed 168 men, women and children, and left more than 680 others injured. At that moment, life in America changed. Tighter security was installed at all federal buildings. Jersey barriers evolved to permanent concrete structures. Buildings with one armed guard gave way to armies of federal agents. Seven years later, even greater security procedures were implemented after 9/11.
The Familiar Routine
On Tuesday, anyone entering the Thomas P. O'Neill Federal Building on Causeway Street in Boston was accustomed to the security routine: Take off your coat, your shoes, and your belt and put them in a dark, rectangular bin. Carrying a cell phone? Place it, along with everything in your pockets, in a white, round collection plate. Then walk through the metal detector and hope you don't get stopped. This scenario has been repeated inside every federal building across the United States for years.
Boston Pilot Program
The agency in charge of protecting thousands of federal facilities is the Federal Protective Service. FPS is also responsible for safeguarding millions of federal employees, contractors and visitors. A few weeks ago, officials from FPS headquarters in Washington, D.C., came to town with change on their minds. Boston, as part of Region 1, had been chosen as a pilot program.
"We went to Boston and did a field visit to look at the whole process" surrounding federal building security, said Jacqueline Yost, chief of public affairs for FPS in Washington. "Part of the FPS initiative is to ensure the screening process is standardized nationwide."
As a result, what gets implemented in Boston could become standard at federal facilities throughout the 11 regions in the United States.
Big Brother Was Watching
The O'Neill Federal Building is the local gateway to federal agencies that touch your life, seen and unseen. There's Homeland Security, Secret Service, Social Security, and the Deparments of Justice, Labor, Agriculture, Commerce, Housing, Treasury, and Small Business. For a few days this week, a team of security specialists and federal law enforcement inspectors monitored the screening process at O'Neill and two other federal buildings in Boston: the John F. Kennedy Federal Building and the John W. McCormack Post Office and Courthouse.
"They were collecting data and testing options," Yost said.
On Tuesday, while hundreds of people passed through O'Neill's doors to get help with passports and business affairs, few of them noticed what was happening just above the entrance. A team from FPS stood on a second floor balcony and watched visitors go through the screening line below. Officials were looking for ways to speed up the flow of people through its screening process. They considered changing the configuration of where the screenings take place while also testing the accuracy of the metal detectors.
"We need to make sure it wasn't too sensitive, so we calibrate machines on the sensitivity of metal," Yost said.
On Wednesday, security procedures changed faster than it takes to empty spare change from your pockets. With no advance notification, visitors entering these three federal buildings (O'Neill, JFK, McCormack) were told not to take off their coats, not to take off their shoes and not to take off their belts.
"It has not become the official policy yet, but is an option being tested," Yost said. "We will continue to monitor its effectiveness."
For now, visitors to these three federal buildings will not have to take off their coats, shoes or belts as FPS "measures the positives and negatives of the plan," Yost said.
The timing of these changes coincides with those scheduled to take place at the nation's airports.
"This is not related to TSA," Yost said.
On April 25, airplane passengers will be allowed to carry on non-terrorist items like hockey sticks, golf clubs, billiard cues, ski poles, and very small knives. TSA acknowledges its mission is to make sure planes take off and land safely. With cockpits bolted, and sky marshals presumed to be on more flights, TSA is handing off potential passenger skirmishes to flight attendants.
Next Stop: Providence
Taken together, changes in security at federal buildings and airports reflect the changes in attitude towards domestic terrorism since Osama bin Laden was captured and killed. But keeping America safe is a balancing act that is always in danger of having a very bad ending.
"We are continually assessing our process … to make sure we continue to be as efficient as possible while securing federal facilities, employees and guests," Yost said.
Security specialists will take what they learned in Boston this week and head to a federal building in Providence next week in hopes that it leads to a new standard in security.
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