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Officials say Del. security 'improving'

(The following story by Victor Greto appeared on The News Journal website on September 13.)

WILMINGTON, Del. -- Delaware's front-line emergency workers are better prepared today to meet a catastrophic threat, whether it's natural or terrorist-induced, than at any time before or since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, public officials said.

Last year, on the second anniversary of the attacks, then-state Homeland Security and Public Safety chief James Ford lamented back-orders on necessary equipment for firefighters and law enforcement and blamed a bureaucratic process that left the state with an extended empty hand.

Since then, "the process has been streamlined," although it is not perfect, said David Mitchell, new state Secretary of Homeland Security and Public Safety.

So far, Delaware has received 27 percent of the $21.8 million in federal homeland security money it requested in 2002 and 2003. Federal and state officials are reviewing Delaware's $20 million request for this year, a process that will take several months.

"It is improving, but it's just slow," said Jamie Turner, head of emergency management for the state. He said the war in Iraq was partially to blame for some of the more recent delays, including equipment for bomb squads.

Officials said the state has gotten a lot of money over the past year and is now receiving and distributing between $1.5 million and $2 million a month.

Among Delaware's remaining challenges is the potential vulnerability of transportation landmarks such as the Amtrak rail system. Perhaps an even tougher task is fighting the tendency of Delawareans and Americans to forget the fright and sorrow of Sept. 11, 2001, and, once again, consider the nation somewhat invulnerable.

That could leave people less willing to finance terrorism safeguards.

"The further we get from the incident, the more complacent we become," said Wilmington Public Safety Director James Mosley.

Although emergency planners must make sure people realize a threat still exists, Mosley said, "The good news is we're moving in the right direction and getting the things we need."

Where the money goes

Turner said the equipment and money his agency distributes each month goes to law enforcement officers, firefighters, and emergency medical services and public health workers, among others.

Equipment such as monitoring devices, personal protective gear and mobile command posts and trailers makes up the bulk of the requests. Money also goes toward training exercises and administration.

"We basically have everything we requested," said George Giles, director of emergency management for Wilmington. The requested items include protective suits and special breathing masks for the city's 175 firefighters and 300 police officers.

Giles, who coordinates the city's police, fire and emergency units, said Wilmington was set to receive a $260,000 mobile command post by the end of the month, to enable the city to set up a headquarters near any serious incident.

Along with New Castle, Kent and Sussex counties, Wilmington also received a medical trailer that provides on-scene treatment for up to 50 people.

"We're getting equipment, so money is less a problem than what it was last year," Wilmington Mayor James Baker said. But he said equipment and money are just the beginning.

He said his big concerns include "how we can get more people out in the community to educate people." The city also needs to figure out how to protect schools and draft laws that let officials respond quickly in an emergency, he said.

"You have to think beyond the 'It can't happen' thinking," Baker said.

He said the city has had several opportunities to test - successfully - its emergency preparedness with snowstorms, a gas-leak explosion and major fires.

Health precautions

Other cities and agencies also have received equipment and training through federal grants. This spring, the Delaware Public Health Laboratory in Smyrna upgraded its lab, security and equipment with a $1 million grant.

Public health officials said more than $7 million in federal grants will be used in part to start two services that deal with terrorism preparation.

One is a software system that gathers reportable disease information from hospitals and laboratories across the state, analyzes the information and sends alerts, said Emily Falone, chief of public health preparedness. The other project will compile and manage specimens submitted to the health lab from throughout the state.

Transportation targets

Transportation systems could be terrorist targets, and some in Delaware may be more vulnerable than people realize.

Ralph Begleiter, the University of Delaware's Distinguished Journalist in Residence and commentator on political terrorism, cited the Amtrak rail system and Delaware Memorial Bridge as examples.

Amtrak officials said they could not give specifics about security measures, but said the rail's police force follows the federal government's homeland security alerts. "We are not like an airport, with one point of entry," said spokeswoman Marcie Golgoski. "It's an open system and airport-style security won't work for us."

At Wilmington, the 13th busiest Amtrak station in the country, officials require a photo ID. But bags are not screened.

The Delaware Memorial Bridge, which Begleiter called a "vital choke point for truck traffic," is run and protected by the Delaware River and Bay Authority.

The authority has had a counter-terrorism coordinator, Lt. Jack Coleman, since May 2003. Since taking the job, Coleman said he has rewritten security plans for vessels and nearby facilities. He also works closely with the Coast Guard, he said. The authority has one marine unit patrolling the area around the bridge, and may add another.

"I think we're far ahead of the curve as far as bridges go," Coleman said. "We took the initiative and moved forward right after 9/11 and started with extensive security measures. Although I can't talk about it, if people knew the extent of what we've done, they'd feel very comfortable."

Begleiter, however, worries that Americans may grow too comfortable as the gap between "today" and Sept. 11, 2001, grows wider. He said people should pay more attention to the United States' role in world affairs and be aware of how people around the globe perceive the country. Begleiter said many Americans don't realize that their country is more disliked today than it was on Sept. 10, 2001.

"Americans perceive the U.S. as a friendly giant, but many other countries do not perceive us as that but a military power capable of imposing its will on almost anyone in the world," he said. "There's the gap in those perceptions. Americans need to know we're not seen the way we see ourselves."

Monday, September 13, 2004

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