It is estimated that there are over four million miles of public highways and roads within the continental United States and that commercial trucks carry 68.9 percent of the tonnage transported over those roads. These two figures mean that at any given time there are a huge number of trucks (and commercial buses) on the road all over the country.
From Seattle to Miami, and all points in between, commercial vehicles seem to be everywhere as they move the raw materials and manufactured goods that drive the nation’s high-powered economic engine. It has not always been recognized, but those trucks and buses, and the professional drivers who operate them, also give the U.S. homeland-security community a unique force multiplier – eyes and ears seemingly everywhere – as well as the communications capability needed to report not only accidents, breakdowns, and traffic hazards, but also other matters of major public concern, including incidents and events in the homeland-defense arena.
Enter America’s Highway Watch
Recognizing that this premium combination of capabilities can be used for the public good, the Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the American Trucking Association (ATA) have established what is called the “Highway Watch” program, an innovative effort that leverages not only the mobility of commercial vehicles and the keen on-road situational awareness of professional truck and bus drivers but also the complementary capabilities of transportation infrastructure workers, such as those involved in bridge construction, by combining their professional assets with a central reporting protocol that can be accessed by the law-enforcement officials responsible for acting upon the information provided by the Highway Watch “Irregulars,” as they might be called.
Those same assets can be used to ameliorate highway-safety problems by the reporting of information about cars, trucks, or other vehicles that appear to have been stranded.
The principal focus of the program is on the development and use of the bonus professional assets made available through Highway Watch to upgrade the nation’s homeland security awareness in general. Those same assets, of course, can just as easily be used for other purposes – to ameliorate highway-safety problems, for example, by the reporting of reckless or impaired drivers, or the relaying of information about cars, trucks, or other vehicles that appear to have been stranded.
When one considers the almost unbelievable number of commercial trucks and buses that are on the road at any given time on major Interstate highways throughout the country – I-95 on the East Coast, for example, or the fabled Route 66, or I-5 – and that could respond quickly and precisely to a BOLO (Be on the Lookout) message from a law-enforcement agency, it quickly becomes obvious that the potential benefits of this previously untapped national resource could be of tremendous magnitude. And that is true whether the BOLO message is about a terrorist activity or an abducted child.
Three Phases and a Telephone Number
The program, which is 100 percent voluntary, is broken down into three phases. First, a professional truck or bus driver, or anyone else actively involved in the nation’s surface transportation system, volunteers to participate in the program and, after doing so, receives a special identification number which he or she will be asked to use when reporting information. Second, the volunteer is then enrolled in a comprehensive security and safety training program, which covers a wide range of relevant topics ranging from recognizing the indicators of terrorism activity to specific guidance on what to do if the trainee comes across a traffic accident. Additionally, specific private-sector organizations involved in the program are developing specific modules of other information that truck and bus drivers from their own sector can use to enhance the baseline training.
The third phase of the Highway Watch program involves training on the reporting procedures to be used when communicating with the Highway Information Sharing and Analysis Center – also known as the Highway ISAC, which serves as an initial communications and analysis node. Its principal purpose, as described by Highway Watch officials, is to provide close coordination between the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the nation’s intelligence and law-enforcement agencies, usually working through a “nationwide team of well trained and experienced transportation-security professionals” who are collectively detecting, assessing, reporting, processing, analyzing, and responding to situations that might pose a threat to the nation’s homeland security.
The Highway Watch program has been enthusiastically endorsed by several major agencies and organizations. In March 2006, for example, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) provided Highway Watch training to every one of its employees. In addition, a strategic alliance has recently been established between Highway Watch and the Emergency Management and Response Information Sharing and Analysis Center (EMR-ISAC). Other public/private-sector cooperative efforts are in the planning stages.
Program officials said that professional drivers and/or truck or bus companies interested in joining, or simply in learning more about the Highway Watch program, should call (866) 821-3444.