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Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Small County, Big Security: How Stafford County, Va., Prevents Terrorism, Protects Nation

As the site of Ferry Farm, the boyhood home of George Washington, the roots of Stafford County, Va., run deep in American history. Not only did our nation’s first president spend his most formative years on the Stafford banks of the Rappahannock River, but Stafford also played a key role in other significant historical developments. European explorer Captain John Smith sailed up the Potomac from Jamestown to Stafford and set foot on our shores. Powhatan Indian princess Pocahontas was kidnapped from Stafford’s Indian Point. Aquia sandstone was quarried for the White House and the U.S. Capitol from Government Island in the northern part of the county, and many African-American slaves traveled the “Trail to Freedom” through Aquia Landing, located on Stafford’s eastern boundary.

These treasures draw history buffs from all over the world. But many people are introduced to Stafford because they are assigned to work in the area. Stafford is located just 50 miles south of Washington, D.C., putting it in close proximity to the Pentagon and other major U.S. military installations such as Marine Corps Base Quantico, which has several acres in Stafford. The county itself also has a significant presence of military and government facilities and employees. One of those is the FBI Academy at Quantico, as well as the main training facility for the Drug Enforcement Agency.

Commuting to these facilities is made possible by major transportation thoroughfares, including I-95, the historic Route 1, and the Virginia Railway Express, which runs through Stafford to numerous stops in Northern Virginia. Amtrak also carries travelers through Stafford to major East Coast cities.

All of these assets make Stafford an attractive destination for those looking to build a comfortable and safe life. But they also make Stafford an appealing target for those who are looking to destroy that safety.

“Terrorists view Stafford as a great opportunity to start cracking the foundation of our country,” said Stafford County Sheriff David Decatur. “They will try to launch their operations here, knowing that a successful attack will create fissures in our government and military institutions, as well as our transportation system.”

The good news is that an attack in Stafford County has not taken place yet. The bad news is that it could happen any day, which is why the Stafford Sheriff’s Office has taken an increasingly aggressive stance on homeland security over the past several years.

When the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred, the Sheriff’s Office – like other local law enforcement agencies – stepped up its community patrols and increased its monitoring of infrastructure facilities in the county. But Stafford’s rapid population growth made simple monitoring inadequate. Today, the county is the fifth-fastest growing locality in Virginia and is projected to be ranked third within just a few years. Also, the popularity of social media coupled with the continuing rise of homegrown terrorism required another look at the role that local law enforcement agencies played in managing homeland security.

“The threat is larger than 9/11,” said Sgt. Jason Forman, who is the supervisor of the Stafford Sheriff’s Office Homeland Security and Emergency Management (HSEM) Unit. “We are not just facing terrorists from other countries. Some of them are right here in our own communities, watching our routines, learning how we respond to emergencies, studying how we handle major community events, making note of our resources – or lack thereof – and looking for that opening in which they can plan a successful attack.”

“The war on terrorism may be talked about at the federal level, but we’re fighting it every day right here in our own backyards,” he said.

One of the many lessons that grew out of the 9/11 terrorist attacks was the importance of proactive information-sharing and strengthening partnerships at all levels of government. Fortunately, Stafford’s proximity to the nation’s capital and significant military and law enforcement facilities have enabled the Sheriff’s Office to build robust relationships with key partners and stakeholders in the homeland security and emergency management fields. The county takes a whole government approach to homeland security that involves local, tribal, state and federal agencies, first responders, academia, non-governmental organizations and the private sector.

“Local agencies and elected leaders play a vital role in homeland security,” said Decatur. “Local law enforcement serves as the first line of detection and defense against many of the threats facing the nation today.”

But a key partner in keeping the homeland safe can be found in our own hometowns. “It is the responsibility of every citizen in Stafford to be aware of and prepare for attacks and major disasters,” Forman said. “Homeland security starts with hometown security.”

To supplement the efforts and information provided by the federal government, Stafford’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Unit works hard to be proactive in educating the public about recognizing and reporting suspicious activity. Staff members also teach citizens how to respond during acts of violence or terrorism.

In fact, the unit held its first Community Counterterrorism Course on Oct. 27 to teach students how to spot and report suspicious activity. The training also educated them about current threats facing the nation. The Sheriff’s Office opened up class registration to the community in August. Interested individuals had to consent to a background check. If they successfully passed that, they were registered for the class. A total of 35 students attended.

The daylong class was divided into several sections and taught by Sheriff’s Office staff members, including Forman, as well as a representative from the Stafford County Fire and Rescue Department. The graduating students are now part of the Stafford County Sheriff’s Office SHIELD program, a two-way information-sharing program that was created in partnership with NYPD Shield. The program provides information to citizens on emerging crime trends, community events and evolving terrorist threats that may impact Stafford County. The students will serve as the eyes and ears of the Sheriff’s Office by reporting suspicious behavior as soon as possible by calling 911 for life-threatening incidents; calling the Sheriff’s Office non-emergency number; or by emailing information to a special email address that is checked by a member of the HSEM unit.

SHIELD members are also sent information about threats to Stafford as well as updates on other threats and/or critical incidents that are underway in other parts of the United States. They receive this information via an alert to their email and then can access the details after logging into the SHIELD website with their own special login and password.

This level of intense engagement with citizens represents a significant shift in the homeland security strategy of the Sheriff’s Office. “We are not just focusing internally; we are reaching out to train our citizens to become more vigilant and to fully participate in homeland security,” Decatur said. “They should not be afraid to report suspicious activity at any time. If they see something, they should immediately say something to the Sheriff’s Office because we will take them seriously.”

Their role is critical in helping the Sheriff’s Office monitor terrorist threats, Forman said. “They can help stop attacks before they happen.”

Now that the Sheriff’s Office has the Community Counterterrorism Course under its belt, it plans to offer future classes related to hometown security. They include:

  • Stop the Bleed: Trains individuals on how to stop bleeding after an injury and how to properly apply tourniquets in emergency situations.
  • Active Shooter/Acts of Violence Training: Teaches individuals how to respond to active shooter/acts of violence situations focusing on building survival mindsets and teaching tactics such as Run, Hide, Fight. The Sheriff’s Office trained more than 3,000 teachers and employees in Stafford County Public Schools on active-shooter countermeasures this past summer. All civilian employees of the Sheriff’s Office were also required to undergo the same training earlier this fall.
  • Prevention and Deterrence of Terror and Criminal Acts: Teaches individuals what they can do to help keep Stafford safe from current threats that face the region and nation as a whole.

These classes go hand-in-hand with Stafford’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Strategic Plan, which provides a comprehensive framework to guide, organize, focus energy and resources, and strengthen operations in the county from 2018-2021 (this year’s version is actually an update to the original plan which covered 2015-2018). The strategic plan identifies nine homeland security and emergency management goals based on Stafford’s risk profile and lessons learned from incidents and pre-planned events. The homeland security classes touch some part of each of the nine goals, which are to:

  1. Strengthen intelligence and information-sharing capabilities
  2. Strengthen counterterrorism and law enforcement capabilities
  3. Protect critical infrastructure and key resources
  4. Enhance cybersecurity capabilities
  5. Enhance citizen and community preparedness
  6. Enhance emergency management and response capabilities
  7. Strengthen chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosives preparedness and response capabilities
  8. Advance interoperable and emergency communications
  9. Become more resilient against future events

The Sheriff’s Office already has strong bonds with its federal, state, regional and local partners, but the real key to success in reaching these goals depends on how engaged citizens are in protecting their hometown. That is why providing them with information on threats and teaching them how to report suspicious activity are critical tools in the engagement process.

Social media also plays an important role in earning citizens’ engagement. The Sheriff’s Office has a robust public relations plan that accompanies the Homeland Security and Emergency Management Strategic Plan. It calls for regular dissemination of information each week related to homeland security using various methods of communication, including the Sheriff’s Office social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

All of these proactive efforts will help build a network of informed and engaged citizens. “For years, Stafford County was seen as a quiet bedroom community to Washington, D.C.,” Decatur said. “But our peaceful façade should not fool anyone. We have eyes and ears throughout our community watching for suspicious activity and reporting it to us.”

“Potential terrorists may stop here, but we won’t let them stay to carry out their violent activity,” the sheriff added.

For additional information on Stafford’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management program, visit the Stafford County Sheriff’s Office website at www.staffordsheriff.com. Click on the Homeland Security tab at the top of the page. Interested individuals may also contact HSEM Supervisor Sgt. Forman at jforman@staffordcountyva.gov or 540.658-4934.

Cathy Vollbrecht
Cathy L. Vollbrecht is a Senior Law Enforcement Analyst with the Stafford County Sheriff’s Office.

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