Three day’s notice. Enough time to cram for an exam, scrub the house for your in-laws’ arrival, or even to get your taxes done — assuming you don’t have too many deductions. Enough time to plan logistics for the arrival of the president of the United States?
Last September John Carlson, superintendent of Service Management at Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) got a call from the U.S. Secret Service: President Barack Obama would arrive in just three days and VTA’s assistance was required. After 36 years at VTA, that call was a first for Carlson and it set the wheels in motion for a sprint — make that a marathon — for the entire VTA agency.
Carlson soon was dispatched to a briefing where Secret Service charted Obama’s route for regional law enforcement and affiliated agencies. A seemingly simple visit with social media network LinkedIn and with notable campaign donors proved to be a sophisticated, logistical exercise that required cooperation at every level.
“It is amazing the amount of coordination and details that are covered when the president comes to town. Literally, there is no rock left uncovered by the teams assigned to protect the president,” said Carlson. “I know the people I work with daily do a great job through any type of crisis or interruption, but they brought it up a notch to make certain we delivered our service with as little inconvenience to the public as possible and at the same time, met the necessary safety precautions for the presidential visit.”
At the request of the U.S. Secret Service, the FAA can restrict airspace around the president for up to 30 nautical miles. For Obama’s brief stay in Silicon Valley, not only was airspace restricted but the Secret Service originally planned to shut down light rail service through downtown San Jose — one of the most highly traveled routes in the VTA system — for more than 12 hours.
VTA negotiated a compromise: Light rail would continue to run as scheduled but every vehicle would have to be swept by law enforcement K-9 teams for explosives at the light rail station stop prior to coming into range of the president’s hotel. Rail stations closest to the hotel were temporarily closed.
Carlson enlisted the skills of his colleagues at VTA operations. Bill Capps, VTA deputy director of Operations, was dispatched to Moffett Field for the arrival of Air Force One. At the direction of the Secret Service, Capps would give the word to stop trains along the route of the presidential motorcade. As Capps awaited instructions, he found himself surrounded by black suits and sharpshooters on the roof above.
On Sunday, September 25, shortly after 5:30 p.m., Air Force One touched down at Moffett Field in Sunnyvale. The air was clear and warm and all eyes were on the high-profile guest. The VTA team and its Secret Service colleagues coordinated through precise and well-timed communication measures.
From Moffett Field, the president was whisked off to meet with campaign donors at the Woodside home of Symantec chairman John Thompson. Then he was off to the Atherton home of Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg before settling in for the night at the Fairmont. Mondaymorning President Obama attended a town-hall style meeting hosted by LinkedIn at the Mountain View Computer History Museum, where he spoke about job creation. VTA buses were placed between the street and the museum as blast shields to protect the president.
Working behind the scenes, VTA personnel accompanied law enforcement officers with bomb-sniffing dogs through every VTA vehicle on the downtown route. Dogs “swept” all areas inside and out. German Shepherds patrolled exteriors while more affable Labrador Retrievers searched inside — an easier presence for already ruffled passengers.