- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 26, 2003

Maryland State Police officials said they have seen a "dramatic" increase in the number of calls to a state homeland security tip line since they began flashing messages to motorists on overhead signs along state roadways last week.
The signs, which usually notify motorists of traffic or weather hazards, were appropriated as part of a joint effort by state police, the Maryland Emergency Management Agency and the State Highway Administration to make motorists aware of the tip line.
The messages can be seen on overhead road signs on the Capital Beltway, Interstate 270 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, among other locations statewide. They read: "Heightened security alert, report suspicious activity" and provide the number to a Maryland State Police tip line. The number is 800/492-TIPS.
Dave Buck, a spokesman for the State Highway Administration, said the messages began appearing after rush hour March 18, the day Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. raised the state's threat level to Orange, indicating a "high" level of alert, to coincide with the threat level posted by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Lt. Bud Frank, a state police spokesman, said police have received 210 calls since the statewide orange alert went into effect. He could not provide figures comparing that number with weeks earlier but said he was confident that the increase was "dramatic."
"I do know that we've seen a surge in calls," he said.
The phone line has been in service for several years. Its original purpose was to take anonymous tips about crime. But responsibility for monitoring the line has been transferred to the new Maryland State Police Department of Homeland Security, which investigates the bulk of the calls. When necessary, the department refers tips to local or national authorities.
"What the investigators are telling us is that the calls are wide ranging," Maj. Greg Shipley, a state police spokesman, said. He said an example was a call during the weekend reporting a gasoline tanker stopped on a bridge. The truck turned out to have broken down, but he said it was a situation police have to be aware of.
Maj. Shipley said people taking video or photographs around bridges or other critical infrastructure sites are another example of something that should be reported.
"It's important in this time," he said. "We don't want people to ignore their feelings of uneasiness about their own circumstances."
Maj. Shipley said there have been erroneous news reports that the tip line is a national line, leaving state police fielding calls from tipsters in California and New York reporting suspicious activity.
"It really is for Maryland residents for issues involving Maryland security," Maj. Shipley said.
Tips from elsewhere are being reported to law-enforcement agencies from wherever they originate.
Mr. Buck said the message would be re-evaluated when the threat level changes. He said the first responsibility of the overhead road signs continues to be to post information about accidents or traffic-related lane closures.
"You don't see [homeland security messages] during rush hour unless there's nothing going on with traffic," he said.
Police in the District say they have no specific tip line set up but encourage people to report suspicious activity to 911 or 311. Virginia State Police monitor their own terrorism tip line at 866-488-8554.

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