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STEPPING UP SECURITY

A Preoccupation With Safety Builds in Region

LAX, Hollywood studios, other public places and private businesses increase vigilance after U.S. raises terrorism alert.

March 19, 2003|Roger Vincent | Times Staff Writer

The owners of the tallest skyscraper in the West are building a concrete barrier intended to stop a truck full of explosives from reaching the lobby. Shopping center managers are towing away cars left in their lots at night. Dogs are sniffing for bombs on movie studio lots.

On Tuesday, as war with Iraq seemed imminent, businesses were preoccupied with security. There was a heightened focus on existing measures for safeguarding buildings and people, and new precautions were taken.

Most of all, there was uncertainty.

"One of the problems in trying to prepare for this is that we don't know what is going to happen," said Rick Caruso, the owner of the Grove at Farmers Market and several other Los Angeles-area shopping centers, and the head of the city's Police Commission. "We're entering into a whole new territory no one understands but everyone is anxious about."

The United States went on orange alert after President Bush declared Monday night that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein must leave Iraq within 48 hours or face a military offensive to oust him. Orange -- second-highest on the federal government's five-level color-coded system -- means the government believes there is a high risk of terrorist attacks inside the country. It has been more than two weeks since the last orange alert reverted to yellow, which warns of an "elevated" level of risk.

For many businesses, the response was immediate.

"Security is always an issue with us, and it gets tweaked whenever we go on a higher alert like Code Orange," said Eric Rabe, a spokesman for Verizon Communications Inc., the nation's largest local telephone service provider. "The security of our network and the security of our data have been ratcheted up since 9/11."

Hollywood movie and television studios are especially sensitive to potential threats. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Hollywood's major operators added bomb-sniffing dogs, hired additional security guards and built walls and cement barriers around unprotected areas of their lots.

Executives at some studios concede that as time elapsed after Sept. 11, security became increasingly lax, particularly with the searches of cars and trunks becoming more random.

But Tuesday morning, after Bush's address to the nation, several executives reported tighter-than-usual security checks as they drove through their studios' gates. "Just coming in this morning, they were checking cars more diligently, checking every car," one said.

At Los Angeles International Airport -- cited in a recent government report as the state's No. 1 terrorist target -- augmented police patrols were evident on the double-deck roadway.

Airport officials conducted random vehicle searches at several entrances and increased surveillance around the perimeter, as well as at nearby sites from which shoulder-fired missiles might be launched.

Los Angeles Convention Center officials said the annual Westec meeting of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, which is expected to bring 23,000 visitors to the 54-acre convention center site starting Monday, was still on the schedule.

But security personnel gave extra scrutiny to trucks delivering displays and equipment for the convention.

"Right now we are checking badges constantly, and we have much greater perimeter control to make sure that we can see what is going on both inside and outside the center," said Phillip Hill, the center's assistant general manager.

In Orange County, managers at the Anaheim Convention Center took some steps Tuesday and considered what additional measures might be necessary later. "We might add police on horseback and bicycles depending on how the situation develops," spokeswoman Elaine Cali said.

Many wouldn't talk about the safety measures in progress or planned. "We never reveal our specific tactics," said Ken Gillett, vice president of operations for Trizec Properties Inc., which owns the massive Hollywood & Highland entertainment and retail complex in Hollywood.

The complex is home to the Kodak Theatre, where the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is preparing for the annual Oscar telecast Sunday.

Those preparations are extensive and secret, Gillett said.

"The academy is a very sophisticated group with an extraordinarily sophisticated security program," he said. "They coordinate with a huge number of outside agencies."

A spokeswoman for a major Southern California shopping center chain who asked not to be identified said mall managers had stopped allowing vehicles to be parked overnight on the property.

There are more security officers in the malls now, she said, many in plainclothes. And they are inspecting more cars, checking the manifests carried by delivery drivers and increasing their sweeps of malls for danger signs.

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