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In burbs, 'high alert' brings subtle changes

By Dante ChinniSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / November 21, 2001



GAITHERSBURG, MD.

For decades, Cessnas have flown low over this small suburban community just 15 miles north of Washington, and Don Pike rarely heard a thing about them. The steady stream of recreational prop planes and small corporate jets flying in and out of nearby Montgomery County Airpark simply wasn't a concern for Mr. Pike, the Gaithersburg Police Department's administrative director.

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That, however, was before Sept. 11. Now, the local police often get calls about "suspicious" planes circling, Mr. Pike says. There was also the case of the "white powdery substance" in a roadway and that of the man at the train station who was taking notes on when trains arrived and left. All the incidents were checked out, in time, and all turned out to be benign.

But the truth, says Pike, is that Gaithersburg's state of heightened alert is better measured by the number of calls coming in from concerned citizens than it is by concrete policing changes in this city of 53,000 people. The city is not dipping into its budget heavily to beef up security.

While cities like New York and Los Angeles increase police patrols and tighten airport security at great expense, smaller cities like Gaithersburg are making few changes. And in some ways, that is surprising.

Tighter security, clearly evident on the streets of Washington, has not come home to the suburbs here, even though it was the bedroom communities of the capital city that served as the home base for several of the Sept. 11 hijackers.

Fewer planes in the sky

One of the places the casual observer might notice differences is at the Montgomery County Airpark, where the number of flights a day has plummeted from about 200 before the attacks to about 40 today. Those changes, however, have less to do with a stepped-up police presence than with a new FAA flight restriction that allows only those trained to fly on instruments to take off and land at the airport.

Most general-aviation pilots, who fly on visual recognition, have been grounded. Before Sept. 11, pilots were free to fly without a flight plan near the airport as long as they stayed below 2,500 feet. That freedom is gone for the time being because of a "temporary flight restriction."

General airfields initially received attention from police because at least one of the hijackers tried to take flying lessons at Freeway Airport in nearby Bowie, Md..

On the ground at Montgomery County, though, people at the airpark say they notice few real changes. Immediately after the attacks, police were regularly seen at the small, two-floor terminal building, says Angela Blom, of Montgomery Aviation, which offers flying lessons and planes for rent. They would check pilots' licenses, she says, but in the end the changes were viewed as largely unnecessary. "We know who comes in and out of here. If there is someone different, we'd know."

Police now make fairly regular sweeps of the parking lot to look for anything suspicious, she says.

Business as usual

The airport itself has made some smaller security changes, such as requesting to see identification of anyone on the airfield area, but the FAA has not required any changes, says Wendy Carter, airport manager. After the attacks, the FAA issued an order to secure the airport "to the best of your ability," Ms. Carter says. But there was nothing specific in the order.

At many small airports outside the Washington area, she says it is business as usual even though often the airfields are not even protected by a chain-link fence. And Carter says she doesn't expect it to change. "Most airports are going to wait for a mandate before they spend half a million dollars on security," she says.

In Gaithersburg, the increased vigilance has cost the city $200,000, including $150,000 for a high-tech surveillance camera system at the new downtown parking garage. It is also spending an additional $40,000 for more private security patrols of buildings and parks. And now, he says, Gaithersburg is looking at designs to put decorative kinds of barricades around the city hall building, a rambling old white mansion.

The city is seeking federal aid to help offset any expenditures. But out of a city budget of more than $34 million, the new cost isn't impacting the budget too badly, he says. Otherwise, though, little has changed.

"The truth is sometimes there isn't a lot we can do," says Pike. "Plane aren't required to file flight plans with us. We check out what we can, but in the end, this hasn't really drained us because we can't do anything about a lot of the calls we get."

All of which means that Pike's phone and the line at the police department are likely to keep ringing. The officers, he says, will continue to be more cautious and more keenly aware of all contacts with citizens, but won't make big changes unless there's another attack.

"Look," says Pike, " if we're out handling a major water-main break and you have someone on your street that's suspicious, that person will have to wait."

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