December 20, 2001

Airport, Mail Service, Police Increase Security Measures

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Although Ithaca lies hundreds of miles from the targets attacked on Sept. 11 and subsequent anthrax scares, many organizations in the greater Ithaca area implemented safety measures in response to the recent terrorism. These organizations include the Cornell Mail Service, the Cornell University Police Department (CUPD) and Tompkins County Airport. The agencies worked to ensure security in Ithaca and prevent the occurrence of terrorism in the future.

Cornell Mail Service

“Our world changed dramatically after Sept. 11,” said Greg Kilmer, assistant director of Cornell’s Mail and Special Transportation Services.

“No one anticipated that the next wave of attacks would come through the mail system.”

After anthrax was identified in letters sent to Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Tom Brokaw of NBC News, Kilmer partook in a joint task force that included representatives from Gannett: Cornell University Health Services, the Department of Environmental Health and Safety (EHS), and CUPD to modify mail procedures at Cornell.

“The changes were based on common sense, being alert, vigilant and educated,” Kilmer said.

According to Kilmer, the task force did a risk assessment to identify the most vulnerable places on campus based on recommendations from the Center of Disease Control (CDC) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The group identified the library system, Sibley Hall and Warren Hall because of the quantity and type of mail those places receive, he said.

In addition, he said that the Undergraduate Admissions Office was susceptible because they receive a high volume of mail from unknown mailers.

“The best weapon is good information and education,” Kilmer said.

Employees were taught how to identify suspicious mail packages, how to report a suspicious package, how to limit exposure and how to identify symptoms of anthrax, he said. Kilmer said that packages with misspelled words, from unknown mailers, mismatching postmark and mailing addresses, excessive postage, overaddressing, staining and block lettering would raise suspicion.

“We had to put it in perspective,” Kilmer said. “There are 208 billion pieces of mail in this country per year and only 4 that have been confirmed to have had anthrax.”

The mail service now provides its employees with gloves and handwipes, Kilmer said.

Cornell Police

According to CUPD Chief William Boice, “The campus was remarkably calm after Sept. 11.”

Even so, the department took precautionary measures by increasing patrols and securing vulnerable buildings, Boice said.

The department identified Schoellkopf Stadium as a vulnerable building and responded by eliminating parking under the Crescent and adding security checkpoints for cars parking near the stadium, according to Boice.

Several plain-clothes officers also accompanied the trustees who visited for Trustee Weekend, he said.

“We do a good job, but we can always improve,” Boice said.

Although no new officers were hired following the attacks, Capt. Curt Ostrander said that many officers were assigned new responsibilities.

“There was a realignment of officers on certain occasions,” he said.

According to Linda Grace-Kobas, director of the Cornell News Service, because of an emergency plan that was established in response to the threat of Y2K, the University was ready for Sept. 11.

According to the plan, representatives from various University departments, including Gannett, EHS, CUPD, the Department of Finance, the Vice President’s Office, Utilities and the Cornell News Service, convene to form an Emergency Operations Center, Grace-Kobas said.

The team of representatives never fully mobilized after Sept. 11, but met regularly to update departmental progress.

“It’s a tool for communication,” said. Frank Cantone, a biological safety officer and representative for EHS.

Being in a university setting provided the CUPD with endless resources, Ostrander said. “We were very fortunate for being university-based,” he said. “People with various areas of expertise are right out on front with information.” Gannett was responsible for calming people’s fears, according to Lt. Michael Blenman.

“Gannett is our form of the Department of Health. Everyone wanted to run out and take Cipro, which is the worst thing you can do. Gannett calmed them,” he said.

Police officials said they did not know how the number of reported suspicious packages at Cornell compared to that of other universities.

“We have had about 70 calls, the vast majority from faculty and staff,” Ostrander said. “Only two or three have been from students.”

According to Grace-Kobas, another Ivy League university received about two to three calls per day during October. She also said that a local institution outside of Ithaca received bomb threats.

“It’s really hard to say how Cornell compares,” Boice said.

Tompkins County Airport

In response to the Sept. 11 attacks and subsequent criticism of the airline industry, the Federal Airline Administration (FAA) mandated that the nation’s airports implement universal security measures. Tompkins County Airport immediately cooperated with FAA mandates, increasing airfield, terminal and airplane security, according to Robert Nicholas, airport manager.

The airport has lost a majority of its short-term parking spaces due to the FAA’s required ‘No Go’ zone. The mandate forbids anyone from parking within 300 ft. of an airport terminal in order to prevent car bombs, Nicholas said.

In addition, airport security guards must now patrol the perimeter of the airport four times a day, including once at night. Airport employees such as air traffic controllers must enter the airfield through one gate, as opposed to the original three access points.

Nicholas said that some of these regulations are unnecessary for airports like Tompkins County, noting that there is only a small chance that terrorists will ever target it.

“The national guardsmen are the most visible changes [at the airport],” Nicholas said. The eight guardsmen, who carry M-16 rifles, are stationed at the luggage screening point. They also do perimeter checks and inspect suspicious cars.

Airline employees are randomly inspecting checked baggage and singling out passengers for further security checks.

Although Nicholas said that the airline is not using racial profiling to single passengers out for additional scrutiny, he added, “If you look at a 95-year-old grandmother, she’s not going to be a terrorist.”

Passengers are now asked to arrive at the airport 1 to 2 hours before their flight in order to have time to go through the tightened security, which requires them to show identification three times before entering the plane: at the flight check-in, during the screening process, and before boarding the aircraft.

The Aviation and Transportation Security Law, passed by Congress on Nov. 19, will bring many changes to the airline industry, Nicholas said.

“The main point is the need to replace screeners,” he said. “With them the saying, ‘You get what you pay for’ is true.” He noted that baggage screeners are often low-paid retirees working to supplement their social security checks.

“They are not the kind of caliber of people who are going to defeat terrorists,” he said.

The law mandates that screeners become federal employees, which means a nearly double increase in salary to
$35,000 a year.

“This will give us decent employees,” Nicholas said, adding that screeners will also undergo much better training.

The law also mandates that every airport install a machine to X-ray checked baggage for weapons and reduces the number of carry-on pieces to one per passenger.

Nicholas also said that the airport has seen a significant decrease in business since Sept. 11. Nicholas commented that the security measures have made air travel more of a hassle than it already was before Sept. 11.

In September, the number of travelers dropped 44 percent, and in November, saw a decrease of 38 percent as compared to pre-Sept. 11 levels.

Nicholas attributed the decrease to people’s reluctance to fly and the airline industry’s subsequent flight cutbacks. “It’s going to take a long time before people get their confidence back,” he said.

Archived article by Stephanie Hankin