Thanks to a $1 million grant from the Department of Homeland Security, passengers on state ferries will soon have a new way to pass the...

Share story

Thanks to a $1 million grant from the Department of Homeland Security, passengers on state ferries will soon have a new way to pass the time while sailing across Puget Sound: learning how to protect the nation from terrorists.

The Homeland Security Institute, a virtual community college based in Olympia, plans to take advantage of a captive audience — the system’s 26 million passengers each year and crew members — to offer emergency-preparedness information in a variety of formats, from training videos on flat-screen TVs to security classes during ferry crossings.

The grant, part of Homeland Security’s first-responder preparedness program, was announced Wednesday by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who wrote a letter in support of the project. It was one of 15 proposals selected from 267 applications.

In addition to raising awareness of suspicious activities and packages, the education program will be designed to prevent alarm and panic — and to prevent potentially dangerous actions like jumping overboard into the frigid waters of the Sound during an emergency, said John Fortugno, director of the institute founded earlier this year.

Fortugno said the program will be designed as a pilot project, with duplication in mind. Though Washington state has the largest ferry system in the country, the U.S. Department of Transportation says there are 224 ferry operators in the U.S., carrying a total of about 134 million passengers a year.

“Ferries have been a soft target for a long time,” Fortugno said, noting that one of al-Qaida’s most-effective attacks was an attack on a Philippine ferry. “Ferries are vulnerable, because they carry a whole lot of people. That’s their job.”

The ferry program is an add-on to the mission of the institute. Since January, retired Navy officer Fortugno and his staff have been preparing to train Washington first responders — police, fire, emergency medical technicians, etc. — and the general public in all areas of disaster response.

Though its work is funded entirely by the Department of Homeland Security — $242,000 for operations in fiscal 2005 — the institute is a unit of the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges.