9-11: How did attack change law enforcement, emergency response?
By Shavonne Potts
SALISBURY — It’s been said that experience is the best teacher. If that saying is true, what have public safety officials learned from living in a post-Sept. 11 world?
First responders say gone are the days of tailoring information to suit one agency or single-department training. Here to stay are sharing of information and cross-agency training.
“Most jurisdictions became attuned to having a plan in place,” said Frank Thomason, chief of emergency services for Rowan County.
Even economic difficulties that have forced agencies to do more with less, Thomason said, have “helped us to work more closely with allied agencies.”
Many local agencies have planning sessions and training exercises.
“It helped us look at the big picture,” Thomason said.
He said responders are keenly aware of the nearby geography, including how close Rowan County is to metro areas like Charlotte and Greensboro.
“We gauge those things, and it helps with the response component,” he said.
Sept. 11 opened the nation’s eyes and the community’s eyes as to what could happen, Thomason said.
Probably the most significant change to law enforcement post-Sept. 11 is going from a “purely reactive entity to being intensely proactive,” said Salisbury Police Deputy Chief Steve Whitley.
Whitley said that transition began even before the terrorist attacks.
After the 1999 Columbine school shootings in Littleton, Colo., the agency began changing the way it responded.
“Today you can take nothing for granted anymore. The challenge now is to maintain that heightened vigilance,” Whitley said.
The cornerstones of law enforcement efforts are paying attention to detail — people, places and things — planning for the what-if scenarios and relentless practice, Whitley said.
Law enforcement agencies also train together, and sharing information helps.
“There are mechanisms in place to send and receive information,” he said. “We are so much better prepared now than we were 10 years ago.”
First line of defense
The N.C. Highway Patrol is the first line of defense in the state for any man-made disaster.
The goal is to protect property and save lives, but prior to Sept. 11, terrorism — foreign or domestic — was not one of the biggest issues, said First Sgt. Jeff Gordon, public information officer for the Highway Patrol.
Communication — or the lack of it among multiple agencies — was the crux of the problem, he said.
When the terrorist attacks occurred, there were multiple first responders, “but yet we did not have the capability to talk to each other,” Gordon said.
Federal, state and local agencies have since closed that gap by implementing the same wireless radio communications system.
Training for the Highway Patrol changed after 2001, and it now incorporates a wide-range of incidents and scenarios.
Troopers are assigned as liaisons to certain federal agencies such as the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Marshal’s Service.
The vital role of the liaison is to share information.
The Highway Patrol now undergoes suicide-bomber prevention and domestic terrorism training.
“That used to not be an issue here, until Timothy McVeigh,” Gordon said.
In 1995, Timothy McVeigh, who was one of the principal conspirators in the Oklahoma City bombing, was stopped by an Oklahoma state trooper.
Troopers also receive security threat group and incident command training where they employ the crisis or terrorist situation model.
This training method identifies roles and responsibilities during an incident.
Troopers are also involved in active shooter scenarios where they stage mock incidents to determine the resources they need, Gordon said.
Training causes law enforcement to be more vigilant and aware of their surroundings and who they are stopping, he said. Troopers are trained to think outside of the box and “go beyond the stop.”
Sept. 11 changed law enforcement’s way of thinking, and the public’s, he said.
“We rely on the public to be our ears and eyes. You’ll hear about people noticing a strange package or suitcase, whereas years ago before (Sept. 11) we wouldn’t put much thought into it,” Gordon said.
“Well the tides have changed, and we see we can be an easy target,” Gordon said.
Immediately following the terrorist attacks, the Salisbury Fire Department was placed on high alert. Firefighters stayed in the station, except when responding to incidents.
“We went into lockdown for a couple of days since we were considered soft targets,” said Chris Kepley, public information officer for the Salisbury Fire Department.
Station and bay doors that had once been open remained locked.
The department shortly thereafter increased its HazMat team and conducted extra training.
“We ran a lot of anthrax calls,” Kepley said.
As tensions eased, so did the heightened security measures.
Since that time, the Salisbury Fire Department has not changed they way it responds to a disaster, man-made or natural.
Eventually, training “pretty much stayed the same,” Kepley said.
Agencies do however, work together through mutual-aid response agreements and train in drills together.
“We have a great sense of situational awareness,” she said.
Throughout the years, the county and many of its public safety and emergency response agencies have received millions of grant dollars that funded training exercises, rescue equipment, computers, generators and HazMat response equipment.
“Rowan County has been very fortunate like many other counties across the nation,” Thomason said.
The following is an assortment of federal grant money received throughout Rowan County:
2002: Rowan County public safety officials and emergency responders including fire, EMS, HazMat Response Team, county Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), more than $956,000.
2003: County Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), local law enforcement, EMS, Rowan Regional Medical Center, Salisbury Fire, Rowan Rescue and telecommunications (911 dispatch), more than $700,000.
2004: County EMS, local law enforcement, fire service, county emergency management, CERT, Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, local responders, more than $3.4 million.
2005: Rowan County, radio equipment, $27,300.
2006: Rowan County, CERT training and equipment, $6,000.
2007: Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, telecommunications, equipment, $67,800.
2008: Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, various fire departments, for turnout gear and other protective equipment, more than $288,000.
2009: East Rowan YMCA, South Rowan YMCA and Salisbury Civic Center, emergency generator for disaster shelter, $52,500.
2010: Various city and county fire departments, construction of communications infrastructure, preparedness training, more than $1.3 million.
Contact reporter Shavonne Potts at 704-797-4253.
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