Security impact of 9-11 gives area resources

Saturday, September 11, 2004

The images of dust-covered firefighters, police officers and emergency medical personnel haunted the country three years ago today.

But while the smoke long ago disappeared from ground zero, the consequences from the collapsing twin towers continue to spread throughout the nation in the form of the Homeland Security Act.

Homeland security isn't just a buzzword at the federal government level. Huge grants are landing in cities and towns all over the country.

In Cape Girardeau County, emergency officials are using funds from the act to train harder and more often, to buy equipment and to secure potential terrorist targets.

This week, the Cape Girardeau Fire Department received $184,880 for terrorist preparation.

Most of that will be spent on communications equipment -- hand-held portable radios for law enforcement officers and firefighters, a base radio for the city's emergency communications center and mobile radios for fire trucks.

Security systems at the city's water pumps and tanks will take $40,000, and $10,000 will go for hazardous material detection equipment.

With the increased terrorism revenue coming into local emergency departments comes increased responsibility.

"Since 9-11, there has been a tremendous emphasis on terror preparation, not just on explosives but biological and chemical, anything a terrorist association or individual could use against the public," said David Hitt, the county's director of emergency management.

Hitt said his department has at times been inundated with terrorism responsibilities, including filling out forms with as many as 300 questions about possible terrorist targets.

The Southeast Missouri region even has a terrorist response team, which consists of the Sikeston and Jackson fire departments.

If a terrorist attack were to occur, these departments would be among the first to assess any situation dealing with weapons of mass destruction. Both departments have received training and equipment from the Homeland Security Act.

Jackson assistant fire chief Les Crump said several of Jackson's firefighters have trained with chemicals in the deserts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

Two weeks ago, the county's public health department put on a mock disaster drill for bioterrorism.

A region of five counties, with the help of 400 volunteer victims, pretended that it was being bombarded with flu-like symptoms. The public health department had to determine the cause, fetch the right antidote and then administer the inoculations.

The exercise helped determine weaknesses in bioterrorism reaction. The health department found it could do a better job registering the patients. Other than that, everything went smoothly.

"Public health has always been a silent partner in the world," said public health director Charlotte Craig. "People don't know we're doing our job, because we're doing our job. Terrorism has really brought public health to the front plate. There really is a valid place on the response team for public health. We know how to do investigations and follow-ups."

Craig said the public health department is much more vigilant about tracking symptoms than it used to be. The department is in constant contact with hospitals and doctors' offices, looking for trends. Before the Sept. 11 attacks, the department did a once-a-week inventory. Now it surveys the data daily.

In addition to providing public safety, area emergency responders have been educators as well.

The Community Emergency Response Training, or CERT, is a program that started before Sept. 11, 2001, but has drawn more interest since.

It takes on the same flavor as a neighborhood watch, only geared more toward first aid instead of property protection. Craig said CERT, which includes the cooperation of several emergency groups, has trained more than 1,500 people.

"Our mantra is, forget biological weapons. If we can get people to be prepared for three days because of an ice storm, or a tornado, if we can get them to be self-sufficient, they'll be just as prepared for a manmade disaster," Craig said.

Given the recent terrorist situation in Russia where hundreds of schoolchildren were taken hostage, it won't be long before more homeland security funds reach school districts as well.

It was reported Friday that President Bush has asked top advisers to review their strategies for dealing with hostage situations.

"I suspect that will get down to us," Hitt said. "The American public is no different than the Russian public when it comes to school and children. There is no higher priority than that."

Jackson High School principal Rick McClard said terrorism discussions have increased locally.

"Five years ago, a terrorist attack wouldn't even have been a topic here," he said.

Some would argue that sparsely populated areas like Southeast Missouri shouldn't spend so much time and money on terrorism.

"If I was a terrorist and I really wanted to strike fear in America, I wouldn't strike New York," Hitt said. "I'd strike a Cape Girardeau or a Des Moines, Iowa. If areas like that were hit, nobody would feel safe."

Staff writer Callie Clark contributed to this report.


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