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Villages, Metra work to improve homeland security

(The following story appeared on the Pioneer Press website on September 8.)

GLENVIEW, Ill. -- Municipal officials have until Oct. 1 to show their support for a federal emergency management strategy if they want to quality for grants from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The Northwest Municipal Conference alerted communities of the requirement in an Aug. 13 briefing. All governing bodies are required to adopt a resolution stating they will comply with the Department of Homeland Security's National Incident Management System by the end of the month in order to qualify for federal grants that cover the costs of enhancing safety and security.

"I strongly encourage all towns to pass a resolution in September so they can be compliant and be able to receive funding," said Mark Fowler, executive director of the Northwest Municipal Conference. "As I understand it, this is the opportunity to do it."

Wilmette Village Manager Michael Earl said the incident management system lays out a framework for how local and federal officials would coordinate efforts and share information in an emergency.

The Wilmette Village Board will consider a resolution on Tuesday. Winnetka was to consider it this week.

According to the Department of Homeland Security's Web site, the incident management system "establishes standardized incident management processes, protocols, and procedures that all responders -- federal, state, tribal and local -- will use to coordinate and conduct response actions.

The department has allocated or awarded more than $8 billion for security measures since March 2003.

NIPSTA training

Many local police and fire departments receive training at the Northeastern Illinois Public Safety Training Academy in Glenview. About a dozen of the classes held at the NIPSTA facility in 2004 were free to the departments through the sponsorship of the Homeland Security Department, said executive director Bob Lahey.

One class, for example, dealt with responding to an attack from a weapon of mass destruction, and another trained first responders on the use of air masks and other respiratory protection, he said.

To date, NIPSTA has not received any federal homeland security funds, Lahey said.

Metra money

Metra used a $3.3 million grant through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in March to provide terrorist awareness training for each of its 4,000 employees.

Being on the lookout for nervous passengers and left-behind items were among key points discussed by educators from the National Transit Institute, a federally funded group on public transportation safety at Rutgers University. Metra director of media relations, Judy Pardonnet, said top on the list of unattended things to watch out for were cellular phones, which were used as detonators in multiple train bombings in Madrid on March 11.

Some of the grant money was used to buy additional surveillance equipment for Metra stations.

Referring to possible chemical attacks, Pardonnet said:

"They talked about what it would look like," Pardonnet said. "You can have such concentrated amounts that it could be as small as one soda bottle and it could really do a lot of damage."

Since Sept. 11, 2001 Metra has added security personnel aboard trains and officers to its internal police department.

"Since 9/11 we've been on heightened awareness," she said. "Our police department has been in contact with Homeland Security every single day."

She said that in May a man was taken into custody by Bartlett police after Metra crew members notified authorities of a passenger who was acting suspicious.

"He was so nervous that he started smoking cigarettes on board the train," Pardonnet said. "He was asking crew specifically about restrooms aboard the train. That concerned the crew so they contacted the police and he was removed from the train."

Pardonnet said the man was later turned over to the FBI.

Local grants

The first round of grants given directly to fire departments was allocated in June, worth nearly $750 million spread across 8,000 awards.

"Eventually there will be (money available)," Fowler said. "Towns should sign up for this to receive money."

The grants cover a wide array of needs, mainly those of fire departments and police departments. Grants can be obtained to purchase equipment, educate the public about disaster response and prevention, or provide training to first responders. Wilmette Fire Chief Joe Robberson said the department did receive filter-canister gas masks as part of a statewide distribution to fire and police agencies.

The Wilmette Fire Department is awaiting word on a grant application for money to help refit the breathing equipment used by firefighters at fire and hazardous waste scenes. Upgrading all of the departments existing units would cost about $215,000, Robberson said.

"They've made some improvements in those units with regard to the information that's displayed to the wearer in terms of the amount of air remaining and alarms in the event that they're reaching a low level that are superior to the mechanisms that are in service today," Robberson said. "We submitted applications on every round, but as you can imagine, the funds are not endless and there's a long line of departments hoping to receive a grant." With a water plant serving 120,000 customers locally and in nearby communities, Wilmette was required by federal law to perform a vulnerability assessment on the facility. A federal grant covered the nearly $100,000 cost for that, but not the costs of the recommended security improvements.

Thursday, September 9, 2004

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