Situational awareness for public works employees

Stuart A. Senneff, CPP, CFE, FCI
Adjunct Instructor, Weapons of Mass Destruction
Texas A&M University

Experts have confirmed that the fundamental objectives of the 9/11 terrorists were to destroy life and property, destabilize Wall Street and the financial community at large, and make a powerful statement by targeting a prominent landmark. In other countries, especially in the Middle East, terrorists generally intend to kill and intimidate with the engagement of smaller, softer targets as opposed to the larger 9/11-type attacks.

With the increased airport surveillance and enhanced vigilance around major landmarks, historical sites, and buildings in the U.S., it is quite possible that future terrorist activities in the U.S. will be directed toward more localized and, in the eyes of the terrorists, softer targets. By focusing on smaller, softer targets, terrorists aim to create fear and economic distress, incapacitate, kill, maim, and interrupt vital services. It is logical to conclude that the more accessible targets for terrorist cells may become water and sanitation plants, overpasses, telephone and electric utilities, courthouses, government buildings, sports stadiums, shopping malls, and government contract agency buildings.

In future terrorist attacks, public works employees may very well be in their workplace before the occurrence of the potential terrorist incident. Therefore, public works employees have a significant role in the recovery phase of a terrorist attack as well as in the prevention of such activities.

Remember this: No police officer, firefighter, or any other government employee knows the job and/or job site better than you, the public works employee. The devastating results of the 9/11 tragedies have required us all to develop a new and lasting awareness of our home and work environments. This means that public works employees may very likely be the responsible persons who can identify a potential terrorist, prior to the act of terrorism.

The following is intended to make public works personnel aware that they have a vested interest in ensuring that our governments remain safe and secure while providing uninterrupted service to citizens.

Potential terrorist organizations and targets
Terrorist organizations such as the following could potentially target a public works site:

  • Established terrorist organizations
-- Foreign
-- Domestic
--Environmental and animal rights factions
  • Criminal enterprises using weapons of mass destruction (WMD)
  • Copycat terrorists
-- The criminal who believes the system has treated him/her unfairly
-- The mentally unbalanced person who believes that society is against him/her

Terrorist goals at public works sites and locations

  • Impact large number of victims
  • Make a statement by exploiting symbolism of location
  • Gain greatest possible media attention
  • Produce mass panic, fear
  • Cause loss of service

Terrorist public works targets

  • Government buildings
  • Water and sanitation treatment plants
  • Roads, bridges, and overpasses
  • Stadiums
  • Electric and telephone utility sites
  • Parks and public gathering places

Terrorist action plan
In order to cause optimum damage to a building and/or site, the potential terrorist must first reconnoiter the location at least once and probably several times. The terrorist(s) will most likely have to "train" to effectively cause damage to your facility; this may require a "dry run" or practice, perhaps on multiple occasions.

In any area where the city, county, or state governments provide services, public works personnel are very probably the most likely to spot a potential terrorist prior to the occurrence of the act. Public works personnel are uniquely aware of activities in the areas in which they work—they usually know the people who may be customers, vendors or visitors (or how to identify a person as such), and in many cases they are able to quickly, effectively, and efficiently decide if a person "belongs" in the area or not. What action should public works employees take? How should you, the public works professional, react to this possibility?

How public works employees can assist law enforcement agencies in their goal of countering terrorism

Public works action plan

  • Always be on the alert for persons who "don't belong" in an area.
  • Always carry a notebook, recorder, or camera on your person or in your vehicle. This will allow you to document suspicious activity.
  • Public works personnel should develop or improve their listening and observation skills.
  • If a suspicious person asks you questions or is in an unauthorized area or one that is not normally frequented by the general public, the following acronym may prove helpful: SCAN (SEE-CONTACT-ASK-NOTIFY). Be courteous, be observant, be responsible; document and report activities that appear to be out of the ordinary, such as a person asking unusual questions about the building, site, location, or where one might find the site's building plans.
  • Do not let your personal beliefs or feelings become a part of the reason you think the incident should be recorded; do not become personally involved.
  • Consider all aspects of the encounter—the entire situation.
  • If you are being questioned about your facility, ask the person to identify himself or herself.
  • Remember, you don't have to apologize for asking for someone's identity. Ask for identification from any person who enters an area not frequented by the ordinary public. If the person refuses, then document and report.


  • It is your responsibility as a public works professional to be thoroughly familiar with the physical layout of your job site.
  • In all likelihood it is the public works employee and not the police officer or firefighter who will become aware of unusual persons and/or activity around your job site.
  • Be on the alert for unidentified packages (boxes) or vehicles left unattended in your area.
  • Encourage fellow employees on the job and at periodic staff meetings to become involved.

If your suspicion is aroused, DO NOT:

  • Take direct action
  • Confront the individual
  • Reveal your suspicions

If you become aware of suspicious activity, DO:

  • Record as many details as possible, such as:
-- License tag numbers
-- Time and date of incident
--Summary of questions asked or activity observed
--Description of individual(s)
  • Notify the proper authorities as soon as possible

If you as a public works employee believe a person's activities are suspicious, use the following to assist you in describing the events: Who - What - Where - When - Why

  • Who did I observe?
  • What did I specifically see?
  • Where did I observe the suspicious activity?
  • When did the suspicious activity occur?
  • Why did I believe the activity was worthy of note?

The following should be of assistance to public works employees in describing suspicious person(s) and/or vehicle(s):

Personal descriptive data information for each person:

  • Name: If known
  • Age: Try to recall the person's approximate age
  • Sex: male; female; couldn't tell (if this is the case, why?)
  • Race: Sometimes this is difficult to describe. Do your best and perhaps compare to a friend or fellow employee
  • Height: Approximate height—look at another person for a kind of ruler
  • Build: Was the person heavy, medium, thin—again, look at another person for use as a guide
  • Complexion: Skin color (dark, light, tan, brown, etc.)
  • Eyes: Color of eyes if observable—was the person wearing glasses or sunglasses?
  • Hair: Color of hair—was hair cut short or long? Could he/she have been wearing a wig?
  • Manner of speech: Did the person have an accent? Did he/she appear to be of foreign extraction?
  • Clothing: Go from head to toe; however, if anything stood out, note that first and then recall other features of the person's clothes
  • Other outstanding features: Scars, tattoos, missing limbs, beard, mustache?
  • Vehicle(s) - Describe each vehicle: What stood out about the person's type of travel vehicle? Was the car old, new, have any noticeable dents? Did the car have any bumper stickers, tinted windows, perhaps writing on the side?
-- Year:
-- Make:
-- Model: For example, two door; four door; sedan; SUV; truck
-- Color: If you are unable to recall the exact color (perhaps the suspicious event occurred at night), then note whether the vehicle was dark, light, or neutral.
-- Number of passengers: Was the person you have described above driving? How many passengers?
-- License Tag: The tag number is important, but if you did not jot down the tag number can you recall the state or perhaps the color of the tag?

What did the person want to know about your job, facility, site, location? Did the person appear to have some knowledge about your particular job? Were the questions asked specific to the site in which you are working? Compare with your fellow employees—maybe they have had contact with the same person(s). If they have, compare the hour(s) of contact and the specifics of the contact(s).

Suspicious questions may include: What are your hours? What kind of security do you have? Where does this valve connect? How many gallons of water does that tank hold? Who works in that building? How many entrances does it have? There are many site-specific questions a potential terrorist would have to ask in order to have the necessary information to commit an act of terrorism.

If you encounter a person who asks questions that seem abnormal, describe the encounter as set out above immediately after the person leaves. Remember, the public works employee's immediate recollection is most probably his/her best recollection.

Memorize the following acronym: BE ALERT

  • B - be aware of what is going on around you
  • E - educate yourself and fellow employees to remain alert and know what to do if suspicious activity is observed
  • A - activity (describe to the best of your recollection what kind of activity has taken place)
  • L - location (provide exact location where suspicious activity was observed)
  • E - equipment (describe vehicle, make, color, license plates, camera, explosives, weapons, etc.)
  • R - remember the number of people present during the suspicious incident and the descriptions of all involved
  • T - time (provide date, time, and duration of activity)

You are the public works professionals! Know who belongs in your work area. Always be aware, always be in control. No matter what your job description in public works, you may be the best one to determine if a person is a valid visitor, vendor, contractor, or a potential terrorist.

As a Supervisory Special Agent in the FBI for more than 14 years, Stuart Senneff managed and supervised FBI Special Agents and support personnel in planning, administration, operations and training at the FBI Academy, Headquarters, and Inspection Division. He is a Lifetime Certified Protection Professional (American Society for Industrial Security), Certified Fraud Examiner (Association of Fraud Examiners), and Florida Certified Investigator (Florida Joint Association Certification Committee). He can be reached at