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Tackling terrorism

Last week Gordon Brown pledged to boost protection of infrastructure from terrorism. How will this be delivered?

Before the floods and before the outbreak of bluetongue, this summer was a summer of terror. In June car bombs were found in London two days after Gordon Brown had replaced Tony Blair as prime minister, followed the next day by a dramatic attack on Glasgow airport.

Last week, Brown announced new plans to ramp up security in public places.

"The conclusions today of the review by Lord West on the protection of strategic infrastructure, stations, ports and airports, and other crowded places, identify a need to step up physical protection against possible vehicle bomb attacks," said Brown in the Commons last week.

"That will include, where judged necessary, improved security at railway stations, focusing first on our 250 busiest stations most at risk and at airport terminals, ports and more than 100 sensitive installations."

Quite a lot of work to do then.

But, while we are used to queuing for longer at airports because of increased security measures, commuters are generally flying to work for longer distances rather than using rail. Similar delays at railway stations would diminish the effectiveness and therefore the attractiveness of public transport.

What can civil engineers do to make a difference?

MFD Security director Chris Bowes says that a great deal of work has already gone into keeping terror at bay.

"It is nothing particularly new," says Bowes, a civil engineer whose firm advises the Ministry of Defence on security matters.

"We spent a great deal of time dealing with the IRA. But the difference is that the IRA did not really want to kill people [with bombings] – they tended to give warnings. Now it can be a suicide bomber or a hostile vehicle, where injuring people is the main aim."

In the IRA era, the approach was minimalism – remove places where bombs could be left – a legacy that still exists today, and the reason why you will still fail to find rubbish bins at major railway stations. However, new styles of attack by suicide bombers without prior warning has rendered this form of defence inadequate.

"There are two simple rules," says Bowes.

"Keep the bomber as far away as possible, and keep the bomb out of the building."

Today's security measures are mostly focused on stopping car bombs, says Bowes, and these generally take the form of street furniture such as bollards and planters with trees in them.

"A moat is good," he adds.

"Not in London, obviously – but many buildings have water features. We also look at how glass performs," he says, explaining that it is not just the bomb, but the schrapnel that can be fatal.

Those familiar with the security surrounding the US Embassy in London's Grosvenor Square will know how over-the-top and visible it is – a highly effective deterrent.

Existing buildings will need to be modified, and will gradually new features introduced as standard. "The challenge will be to make these buildings architecturally acceptable," says Bowes.

One obvious challenge is that while a building can be protected, people in public spaces cannot have the same privilege quite so easily.

Bowes says he believes airport-style scanners in London's Tube system would be impossible, or would at least cause horrendous difficulties. And it is therefore the wrong solution.

NCE spoke to the Department for Transport (DfT) this week and learned that it is leading an experiment into mass-transit explosives testing.
A month-long experiment at Canary Wharf, Greenford and Paddington stations showed that portable scanning devices can be used fairly effectively, current technology allowing one person to be scanned every 60 seconds.

"This is not about permanent screening at every station. It would be unworkable to require 100% passenger screening of the sort you see at airports – the delays would be unacceptable to passengers and the costs very high," said a DfT spokesperson.

"We are aiming for a strategy that translates into deterrence, detection and public reassurance but is proportionate to the threat and minimises disruption. We have already been doing work on this - through trials on stations with dogs and equipment.

"People are likely to see flexible deployment of dogs and portable screening equipment by British Transport Police (BTP) officers across the busiest stations – both mainline and underground, the exact locations being an operational decision by the BTP.

"No single security measure is either foolproof or capable of mitigating every threat so we need to keep a range of measures available," he said.

Look outside the UK, and designs already incorporate features such as scanners. Vast new train stations in Beijing are designed to include airport-style scanners, and the time delays this will cause have been incorporated into the final design (NCE 19 July).

But even this approach is not foolproof. According to the Bowes, when you cut-off a terrorist's favoured form of attack, another will inevitably emerge. "There is a saying that if a terrorist has two options, he will inevitably choose a third," he says. So the measures that come into play will change and evolve as the threat changes and evolves.

While nothing is cast in stone there is, according to Brown, a security budget of £2.5bn this year, rising to £3.5bn in 2011, giving civil engineers plenty of incentive to stay creative.

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