Publication Date: Wednesday, September 11, 2002
Police, fire agencies step up training, watchfulness
Police, fire agencies step up training, watchfulness
(September 11, 2002)
By Andrea Gemmet
Almanac Staff Writer
One year later, the aftermath of September 11 on local communities is wide-ranging. Emergency people are working to improve their ability to respond to terrorist attacks, with training, equipment and improved coordination between agencies. Ordinary residents are even more strongly encouraged to be prepared for disasters. Local governments are carrying on with the day-to-day business of keeping towns running, and a wide range of memorial events are planned to commemorate those who lost their lives.
For "first responders," such as firefighters, police and paramedics, the suddenly very real possibility of terrorist attacks has created a heightened awareness and a pressing need for more training and equipment.
"Our firefighters have to be aware when they respond to calls now," says Chief Mike Fuge of the Woodside Fire Protection District. "Even if it's a van on the side of the road that's on fire, they have to be a lot more cautious. If no one is around, do you really know what's in that van? They're always on the lookout now, for anything."
September 11 has had a big impact on training, he says, with an emphasis on responding to weapons of mass destruction, such as biological and chemical agents. Woodside firefighters have attended a crash course on anthrax, and have been issued self-injection kits to use if they're exposed to sarin or other deadly chemical gases.
The new sense of priority means other San Mateo County-wide training exercises, such as the annual high-rise and wildland fire drills, have been canceled, says Chief Fuge.
The Menlo Park-based Task Force 3, a specialized urban search and rescue team, is also gearing up to deal with bioterrorism and chemical warfare. The task force, one of 28 such teams nationally, has responded to eight disasters since 1992, including Hurricane Iniki in Hawaii and the Oklahoma City bombing. Sixty-seven of its members spent 13 days in New York following last September's terrorist attacks.
Next month, the task force is expected to receive $740,000 in federal grant money to increase training and equipment for responding to weapons of mass destruction, says Division Chief Harold Schapelhouman of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District, which sponsors Task Force 3. The task force already maintains about $2 million in equipment at the fire district's Belle Haven station. The fire district is negotiating with neighboring Tyco Corp. for additional storage space for the new equipment it will purchase with the grant money, says Mr. Schapelhouman.
The task force is made up of experts in many fields, from medicine to canine searches, and specializes in rescue operations at collapsed buildings.
"We're the special forces of disaster response," Mr. Schapelhouman says. "We're the shock troops."
The fire district is planning new programs to be in place by the end of the year, or early in 2003. One is a regional response plan for the Bay Area, he says. In another, the district is acquiring small-scale equipment and arranging for helicopters transport for rapid response. "We will be able to airlift personnel with equipment anywhere in the Bay Area within 30 to 60 minutes," Mr. Schapelhouman says.
The district also owns four train cars and is working on a program with Caltrain to move equipment by rail if roads are blocked.
Local police says they have seen a definite pattern to the calls they received after September 11.
Until November or so, the Menlo Park Police Department was getting a lot of calls from people concerned about suspicious packages, low-flying planes, even "Middle Eastern men talking," says Cmdr. Greg Rothaus.
But by now, "all of those calls have almost gone away completely," he says.
Many of Atherton's suspicious package reports, which also tapered off after several months, came from Menlo College, says police Chief Bob Brennan. "They get packages from all over the world with applications, and a lot of them are pretty tattered and beaten up by the time they arrive. But they all turned out to be legitimate," he says.
The anthrax scare that followed the terrorist attacks meant an increase in calls for the county bomb squad -- a third more calls in 2001 compared to the previous year, says Bronwyn Hogan of the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office.
Police departments in the county have all signed off on a plan to equip officers with basic protection gear -- breathing masks, auto-injection kits and suits -- to be paid for with federal grants, Chief Brennan says. Training for handling chemical and biological weapons represent a new direction for local police, as does a plan to create a "hot-zone response team" from county SWAT teams, he says.
Before September 11, he says, the Atherton Police Department's specialized disaster gear ran to World War II-vintage gas masks and riot helmets.
The San Mateo County Sheriff's Office is preparing for a heightened state of vigilance on the anniversary of the attacks, says Ms. Hogan. From September 10 to September 12, the Emergency Command Center will be open to monitor information from state and federal agencies such as the FBI and California's terror information center.
"There are no credible threats to lead us to believe that there'll be any kind of incident" on September 11, she says.
Nevertheless, antiterrorism experts say that terrorists often consider anniversary dates when planning for attacks, says Ms. Hogan.
There are plans to stage a massive, county-wide training exercise responding to a chemical or biological attack, which will happen sometime next year, she says.
There's one other change that law-enforcement officials have noticed since September 11. "People have been a lot more forthcoming with compliments and appreciation" for police, says Menlo Park police Cmdr. Terri Molakides.
Outside of police departments, municipal officials say that little has changed. "We pretty much tried to maintain business as usual," Menlo Park City Manager David Boesch says, while being sensitive to the fact that "different people deal with situations like that differently."
In fact, in the towns of Portola Valley, Woodside and Atherton, there's been little visible effect on local governments. "It hasn't colored the nature of day-to-day business," says Woodside Town Manager Susan George.
The only real change is that staff now wears protective gloves when opening the mail, as a precaution against anthrax, she says. Training in recognizing and dealing with anthrax is now available to staff, says Atherton City Manager Jim Robinson.
Residents, schools and businesses should take commonsense precautions to prepare for possible catastrophes, whether earthquakes or terrorism, says Lt. Steve Shively, the director of the county Sheriff's Office of Emergency Services. Besides stockpiling radios, flashlights and enough water and food to last several days, they should have a plan for getting in contact with family members, he says.
Government agencies will remain steadfast in their attention to preparing for the what-ifs, predicts Cmdr. Rothaus of Menlo Park.
"Clearly, there's been increased emphasis on increased communication and coordination" with neighboring agencies, such as the fire district and nearby cities, says Mr. Boesch.
"I think that we're better prepared than we were a year ago," he says.
Local water supplies, already an issue with the dilapidated state of the Hetch Hetchy water system, are a subject of increased concern. Menlo Park gets bulletins from the FBI or OES when there are rumors of water contamination.
"We have our guys checking on the water tanks more often, and we're more aware that that's a source of potential trouble," says Mr. Boesch. The city serves water to about a third of Menlo Park's residents, and it has back-up supplies to rely on if something were to happen to Hetch Hetchy.
Atherton's Chief Brennan says the Bear Gulch Reservoir, which supplies water to parts of Woodside, Portola Valley, Menlo Park and Atherton, would be Atherton's only potential terrorist target, but it is still an unlikely risk. Its earthen construction -- hundreds of feet thick at the base -- make it extremely difficult to blow up, and the quantities of biological or chemical agents required to have any effect on people would be daunting to obtain and transport, he says.
The result of increased police vigilance? "We catch people fishing up there all the time," he says.
Woodside and Portola Valley officials can't think of any potential targets. "We really don't have any high-occupancy structures or points of interest that attract huge blocks of people," says Ms. George of Woodside. "Although we have some important people who live in town, it's not clear to me that they would be targets."
Remembering the day
"We're kind of low-keying it" at City Hall, says Menlo Park's Mr. Boesch. "We're also trying to be respectful that different people will deal with that memory in different ways."
City employees plan to have a subdued tree planting for anyone who wants to participate. A commemorative plaque will identify the spot, near the police station, where a tree was blown down by wind -- coincidentally, about a year ago. The City Council also plans a proclamation to recognize the efforts of the Menlo Park firefighters who went to Ground Zero with Task Force 3.
Menlo Park's Community Services Department is distributing flag pins to its employees and holding a moment of silence at 4 p.m., says Mike Taylor, the city's senior recreation supervisor.
Several agencies plan to participate in a county memorial service in San Mateo at 8:45 a.m. on September 11, including Atherton police, the Sheriff's Office and the Woodside fire district. The event is at the San Mateo County Fair and Exposition Center, 2495 South Delaware St.
Several Woodside firefighters, including Chief Fuge, plan to go to New York City in October to attend a national memorial service commemorating fallen firefighters.
Almanac reporters Pam Smith and Marion Softky contributed to this report.