WASHINGTON, D.C. — After more than a year on hiatus, the First Observer program is set to come back online soon to resume the training of transportation professionals in security awareness.
The government program, which includes the School Bus First Observer module, has been dormant since December 2012, when its grant money ran out and wasn’t renewed by Congress.
Until then, First Observer (successor to Highway Watch) had been administered by grantee HMS Co. since 2008. After the grant expired, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) decided to bring the program in-house.
TSA’s Steve Sprague, who is now managing the First Observer program, told SBF that in early 2013, TSA brought in a new contractor. However, Sprague said that there was a lapse in the contractor’s ability to pick up the program.
“It has basically been languishing for at least a year now,” Sprague said. “But the program is not dead. It’s very much alive.”
Now, TSA is working to launch First Observer 2.0. As of this writing, Sprague said that the agency expected to get the First Observer modules back online soon. Then, TSA will solicit input from industry stakeholders — such as pupil transportation association officials — to identify any needed updates or other revisions.
Also, Sprague said that the First Observer contractor will add some instructional formatting, such as quizzes for trainees to take throughout the modules.
Bill Arrington, branch manager of TSA’s Office of Security Policy and Industry Engagement, Surface Division, estimated that around 50,000 school bus professionals have been trained through First Observer. TSA has found that the pupil transportation community has been particularly engaged in the program.
“They truly care about the cargo that they carry,” Arrington told SBF, “and they understand that they have a role to play in preventing something bad from happening.”
Arrington said that there is no current intelligence indicating that there is an “actionable threat” to pupil transportation, but he stressed the importance of staying vigilant, which is a key tenet of First Observer.
“What this program is intended to do is to raise the level of awareness — to not fall into a sense of complacency,” Arrington said.
Sprague added that First Observer and Highway Watch have each been credited with helping to stop at least one terrorist event.
In one case, in February 2011, a Greyhound bus was hijacked by an armed man. Sprague said that the bus driver used principles that she learned in First Observer training to respond to the hijacker.
The driver reportedly dealt calmly with the armed man and persuaded him to stop the bus. She was able to get her passengers and herself off of the vehicle safely, and police captured the hijacker.
For more information, go to www.tsa.gov/first-observer.