NEW YORK – Building superintendents and doormen in New York City (search ) are receiving anti-terrorism training under a program developed with the help of the Police Department. The idea is to make the building employees the eyes and ears for the police.
Plans call for the training of 28,000 building employees in the next 18 months. "My mother in Queens knows everything that goes on in her neighborhood," said Michael Lollo, one of the police-academy instructors teaching the course. "We want 56,000 more eyes."
In his 13 years in the Army, Frank Zapata learned how to look people up and down and spot suspicious characters. Today, Zapata, now a super at a 16-story apartment house on Manhattan's Upper West Side, is putting those skills to work as an unlikely sentry on the nation's terrorism watch.
While the Sept. 11 attacks vividly illustrated the vulnerabilities of office high-rises and government buildings, security experts have more recently raised concerns about apartment houses.
Terrorists "may be moving from high-visibility targets like the Pentagon" to softer targets such as apartments, said Matthew Levitt, a former FBI anti-terrorism analyst and now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy (search).
In New York City, the training was initiated by landlords and the union that represents building supers, doormen and others.
The workers will receive four hours of classroom training. Among other things, they will be warned to be on the lookout for cars or trucks that are parked near buildings for a long time, or that have no license plates; for anyone who takes pictures of the building or lingers too long outside; and for new tenants who move in with little or no furniture.
Doormen who routinely sign for packages and accept deliveries for tenants are also taught to watch for parcels with no return address or too much postage.
The doormen and supers will also get lessons on how to recognize phony IDs and documents and will be taught how to respond to bomb threats and how to contain biological and chemical agents.
Zapata underwent his training earlier this month, and since then has held meetings imploring tenants to be more alert, too.
"They call me a drill sergeant, they call me a cop," he said. "Call me what you want, you'll be safe."
Earlier this month, the Justice Department (search) said that Jose Padilla (search ), a suspected American Al Qaeda operative in U.S. custody since 2002, had plotted to blow up high-rise apartment buildings by renting several apartments, turning on the gas stoves and using timed detonators to set off simultaneous explosions.
Since then, security analysts have cast doubt on whether the former Chicago gang member would have cleared the necessary background checks to rent multiple apartments. They also said that the smell of leaking gas would have probably given the plot away, and that the explosions and fires would not bring down sturdy buildings.
Still, experts said the allegations offer a chilling glimpse of Al Qaeda's intentions.
Gas lines are not the only vulnerable points. Street-level air intakes for heating and air-conditioning systems leave many older buildings vulnerable to chemical attacks, said William Vorlicek, a retired Army colonel now working as an analyst at the security consulting firm Kroll Inc.
Kroll is also looking at water supplies, elevators and parking lots. "The biggest threat is still vehicle bombs," Vorlicek said.
Kroll said it has dozens of residential building companies as clients, not only in New York but also in Chicago, Boston and other cities. But experts said New York landlords are on the highest alert.
"If someone wants to attack America," said Richard Grant, director of Midboro Management, which is hosting some of the employee training courses, "this is the target."