Stronger arms of the law

Wednesday, June 1, 2005

The state can call them up. So can the federal government, and it has, twice to protect the president.

But most of the time, they're keeping small communities in Southeast Missouri safe.

The members of the Jackson-Sikeston SEMO Hazmat-Weapons of Mass Destruction Team, which was formed in 1999 and enhanced with tactical components in 2001 after the Sept. 11 attacks, are using their recently developed skills and state-of-the-art equipment to battle nonterrorist threats at home -- providing residents with an added measure of protection.

The team's mission, which it shares with the 27 other hazardous materials teams in the state, is to provide protection in the event of a terrorist attack in Southeast Missouri and support larger communities should there be an attack.

"We were activated when President Bush came to Poplar Bluff," said Lt. Rodney Barnes, Jackson Police Department and the regional tactical team leader.

The team has 20 tactical law enforcement officers, six Jackson police officers and 15 Sikeston officers in addition to 24 fire and emergency medical personnel from the Jackson Fire Department.

Each team member is required to carry with him at all times a gear bag chockfull of state-of-the-art equipment, including ballistic shields, with lights on each side to protect them when they advance toward an enemy; tactical bulletproof vests; Kevlar helmets; .223-caliber Colt M-4 machine guns including a lighting system controlled by a pressure switch; 870 tactical shotguns; and Remington 700 sniper rifles. Team members also are equipped with the latest generation of gas masks, chemical resistant boots and air-pass ballistics backpacks, designed to be bulletproof.

Federal Department of Homeland Security money paid for most of the equipment and much of the specialized training, but donations paid for weaponry.

"Homeland Security doesn't pay for weapons," said Barnes, holding up a state-of-the-art machine gun to demonstrate its lighting mechanism. Jackson police joined the team in spring 2004.

Jackson and Sikeston joined forces because most small communities don't have the personnel and expertise to create one, according to Capt. Jim Hailey, Sikeston Department of Public Safety, a firefighter for 32 years and police officer for 20.

"One of the requirements of being a Homeland Security team is that it must include medical, hazardous material handlers, emergency medical and law enforcement personnel," Hailey said.

Though Sikeston could easily handle the law enforcement aspect because it has had a crack tactical team since the early 1990s, it needed assistance with medical services and hazardous materials if it hoped to get approval to be a forward response hazmat team, as opposed to a support team.

Jackson not only had medical expertise, but also an approved hazmat unit in place. So Jackson assigned six police officers along with emergency medical technicians and firefighters to the joint team.

"After 9-11, the state and federal government decided to enhance hazmat teams and contacted us to see if we wanted to do it," said Brad Golden, Jackson's fire chief.

Even the grant writing was a team effort. Golden wrote the grant to obtain WMD training for the Jackson Fire Department to ensure it would be prepared in the event of a chemical, biological, radioactive or other type of terrorist attack.

At that same time, Lt. Ken Dicus of Sikeston wrote a grant proposing a hazmat-WMD team be formed with the two departments because he wanted to raise the level of preparedness of his men. Both requests were approved and received Homeland Security grants.

Then the Jackson police wrote yet another grant to obtain training and equipment for the entire law enforcement component of the team. They won the grants, and the team was put together with members of the three departments.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the departments received a total of $1.2 million in Homeland Security grants, said Golden, who is a co-coordinator of the team with Sikeston Department of Public Safety chief Drew Juden.

Team members train a minimum of eight hours a month to maintain their skills. They also attend specialized schools. "We can use all the equipment, and it's a benefit to the city and it enhances our capabilities," Barnes said.

So does interagency cooperation.

"It's a team concept," said Sgt. Scott Eakers of Jackson and assistant hazmat-WMD team leader. "Everybody believes in what we are doing."

Barnes agreed.

"We really take this mission very seriously," he said.

335-6611, extension 128

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