For more than a decade, the Birmingham Police Department’s K-9 explosive detection unit has been visiting the Thrasher Brothers Trailways bus yard for bomb-sniffing training.
The force, responsible for responding to bomb threats, practices how to check buses for explosives. The company initially provided clean buses, but the department requested dirty buses so the dogs would have to sort through layers of human smells to find the scent they were searching for, said Alan Thrasher, co-owner of the family-owned business in Birmingham, Alabama.
“They said, ‘If we pull a bus over on the side of the road for any reason, and it has people on it, we want the dogs to have to pick out the smell of explosives, not just over the Lysol of a clean bus but the smells of humans and everything,’” said Thrasher, a board member of the United Motorcoach Association.
The training is thorough. A little ball with explosive material is placed in different parts of the bus, from the luggage bay to the front axle to underneath a seat.
“They climb over the seats, looking under them. They basically go over every square inch of that bus, including up underneath the wheel wells, and they find that thing every time,” Thrasher said.
The training takes place in August or September, before football season. Checking buses and other vehicles for security began after the Sept. 11 attacks, when hijacked commercial airlines were used to cause mass destruction.
Before bomb-sniffing training
Thrasher remembers his first security training with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) as a representative of Trailways. After that experience, he began educating his drivers about checking for potential bomb threats.
“I said, ‘Look, if you go on a (Washington, D.C.) trip or you’re parked in Maryland or Virginia, when you go out in the morning, don’t just check your oil. You need to be looking for a strange box attached underneath the wheel well or in any compartment that you’ve left open. Make sure you check to make sure nothing strange has been put in it. Check your engine compartment for something that’s not supposed to be there, because the last thing in the world we want is to be the vehicle that transports something into D.C.,’’’ Thrasher said.
The security focus has shifted over the years to drivers watching out for victims of human trafficking, and Thrasher worries that the industry might be growing lax on security matters because there hasn’t been a bombing incident in years.
“I think a lot of that has to do with the training that we got back in the early 2000s when everybody was still scared after 9/11. With the anniversary just happening, I thought it was a good idea to remind people that security and bomb-sniffing dogs are part of the real world nowadays in keeping our buses secure,” Thrasher said.
Law enforcement relationships
He recommends operators consider reaching out to their local police forces to offer up their buses for training.
His mechanic, for example, has been a resource for Alabama State Police troopers when they have mechanical questions about buses during vehicle inspections.
Thrasher likes to tell the story about how his various relationships with law enforcement resulted in a memorable day at his bus yard. A few years back, while an FMCSA (Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration) representative was in his bus yard for an annual inspection, the Birmingham police dropped in for dog-sniffing training and a few state troopers showed up to ask the mechanic some questions.
“What was hilarious is the rumor mill got started that Thrasher is going down. They are getting busted for something. There were uniformed people all over the place. It looked like we were getting raided,” Thrasher said with a laugh. “The guy from FMCSA asked, ‘Did you plan this? Who are all these people?’ I told him, ‘I always want to make sure you’re secure while you’re on the premises.’”