With First Observer on Hiatus, Opportunities Remain for Ensuring School Bus Security PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ryan Gray   
Friday, 14 December 2012 08:44

arrington-nasdpts-2012In preparation for our January 2013 magazine edition, in which we focus on security-related news and views, we sat down with William Arrington (pictured), general manager of the Transportation Security Administration's Office of Highway and Motorcarrier, to discuss the state of the First Observer program.

Since 2008, First Observer has trained school bus drivers and other transportation professionals how to report suspicious activities observed on roads and highways traveled and in communities served. In October, Arrington had updated attendees at the NASDPTS Annual Conference in Memphis, Tenn., on a rash of school bus thefts in the Midwest earlier in the year. Then, news broke in late November that First Observer was going on hiatus. Arrington updated us on where the training program stands, what is to be expected in the new year and the role the student transportation industry continues to play in ensuring the security of the nation's transportation infrastructure. 

So what can the student transportation expect in the new year? Arrington provides insights to STN readers in this Web Exclusive.

School Transportation News: What's happening with the First Observer training program for school bus drivers? We understand funding for the grant has expired.

William Arrington: I'm pleased to report that the program will continue to train transportation professionals as it has done since 2008. At the moment, the program is "between providers" and undergoing some changes to expand its reach into new surface transportation modes to reflect a change in organizational structures here at TSA. Nonetheless, online training, existing curriculum elements and our suspicious activity reporting lines all remain operational. The same phone number still works,toll-free at 888-217-5902. This program has proven to be one of the most popular outreach efforts in all of TSA. We're dedicated to its continuation. I'll also remind you that last fall – the fall of 2011 – we mailed First Observer School Training DVDs to every public school district in America (14,000). If your school district hasn't implemented the training, please inquire. They were mailed to school superintendent offices at each location.

STN: TSA completed a full national risk assessment of school transportation a couple of years ago to satisfy a congressional requirement contained in the 9/11 Act. Is it still possible to get a copy of that report? Has it been updated at all?

Arrington: TSA completed that assessment and turned over to its congressional requesters early in 2010. Once it was in the hands of Congress, we began making it available through to leaders of school transportation systems throughout the country. Because the report was classified as "security-sensitive information" we need to restrict its distribution to those with "a need to know" and those who agree to control distribution. However, virtually every person who is employed in the school transportation field may request a copy. If you would like a copy, please write to us by e-mail to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ; tell us how you qualify for a copy and we'll send it to you password-protected. And, no, we have not opened the report for an update since it was published.

STN: The school transportation community has often asked for a grant program to help with security preparations and costs. Is there any new hope for such a program of federal grants to help?

Arrington: No. All grant allocations are made by Congress and – starting with last year's budgeting cycle – Congress moved all grant programs for transportation security from TSA to FEMA. As such, commercial motorcoach security grants and the trucking security grant programs were. We strongly recommend that your community continue to support such grants but to pursue local training and the preventative disciplines that have been so widely accepted in the school bus community through your respective State Homeland Security Office.

STN: You hae mention "preventive disciplines" but you don't mention what those are. Has TSA compiled or published what would amount to "best practices" that school transportation systems could implement to enhance security?

Arrington: Working closely with all three major school transportation organizations (NAPT, NASDPTS and NSTA), TSA compiled what we officially call "security action items," but those have not been formally published yet. We are pleased to report, however, that the National Congress on School Transportation (NCST), last convened in 2010, added TSA's list of best security practices as an appendix to its recommended best practices operations guide. We were extremely happy with the Congress' inclusion of those, making that guidance available to every school organization in America. As most are aware, the NCST is one of the most highly-regarded standard-setting organizations in this nation, having promoted uniformity and safety enhancements in the industry since 1939. NCST reconvenes ever five years; TSA hopes to be part of that next session in 2015, as well. I encourage anyone interested to visit the Congress' website.

STN: In the past, TSA has sent representatives to school transportation districts around the country to conduct what was called the "Corporate Security Review." They asked questions about each district's security preparedness but they also shared some of those best practices when they visited. Is TSA still offering that kind of individual operation review?

Arrington: In the fall of last year we replaced the "CSR" with a similar but better program called the Highway "BASE," or Highway "Baseline Assessment for Security Enhancements." The CSR was our original opportunity to reach out to school transportation units to discover what those units were doing for security on their own. They taught us a great deal about the places where we could do a better job of guidance and helped us understand whether regulations were needed. Highway BASE does the same thing but it now focuses our efforts a little better on the places where we might need to go first and the improvements we can make in guidance. Unlike the CSR, Highway BASE assessments are now accompanied by a numerical score helping us clarify what parts of the operation need attention. A district may be strong in driver and employee training and soft in physical security, for instance. The report which is returned to the school transportation system can help that school focus on areas for improvement. Remember that this is NOT an inspection, it's a voluntary review conducted by TSA field teams. If you have any specific questions about the new program, please reach out to us at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

STN: In your opinion, how does the school transportation community stack up against other highway modes like trucking and commercial bus in security preparedness?

Arrington: I'm always extremely proud to talk about how your community has responded to the new security challenges. While grants have been made available for commercial bus security and an overwhelming regulatory engagement has come from USDOT and DHS for the trucking sector, progress in the school transportation community has been almost exclusively voluntary. That makes it just that much more impressive. We honestly have no more ambitious and foresighted segment of the highway transportation community than the school bus operators in the country. Training for the First Observer security awareness program has been broadly accepted and implemented and leaders of the school transportation business – both contracted and district-owned – have been strong and busy partners with TSA. We wish we could have that level of engagement and cooperation from all of our stakeholders. They've clearly proven that government can't do it alone. This community needs to be very proud of what it's done already and dedicated to keep that enthusiasm and vigilance alive.

STN: Thank you.

Editor's note — Read more on school bus security and the TSA in the January 2013 edition of School Transportation News magazine.

Last Updated on Thursday, 19 December 2013 10:46