In West Virginia’s northern panhandle, dispatchers took the call: “Looks like a HAZMAT situation. Somebody’s rolling a big, metal drum off the back of a pickup and into the Ohio River. …”
Then, elsewhere in the same area at the sametime, a SWAT-type special-operations team raided a compound and foundbomb-making materials.
And there was more: Another call came in, resulting in a group of investigators taking down a drug lab.
Among local public safety officials, thequestions came quickly: These are three events that don’t often unfoldin the panhandle. How could all three happen at once? How could they berandom?
The answer was easy: They weren’t.
Over three days of investigation, local,state and federal authorities discovered evidence that linked thebomb-making lab to a terrorist organization. The drug lab was uncoveredas a revenue generator for a local cell. And that drum that wentrolling into the river? There was a dead body in there. Somebody in thecell fell out of favor rather quickly, and ended up with a bullet inthe head as a result.
Fortunately for the panhandle, these eventswere part of an acclaimed series of mock disaster simulations,organized by public safety/health officials from West Virginia’s Ohioand Marshall counties, as funded, staffed and directed by the NationalCorrections and Law Enforcement Training and Technology Center inMoundsville, W.Va.
In 2003, these efforts resulted in a national“Profiles in Innovation” award at the Government Security Expo andConference (GOVSEC) and US Law Enforcement Exposition and Conference inWashington. The mock disaster drills are exercises that take nearly ayear of preparation and planning on the part of two dozen local leadersrepresenting law enforcement, health care, emergency services and fire,as well as state and federal homeland security and public safetyofficials.
The event used to take a day, but, in lightof the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the community has ratcheted up theintensity several notches, and now the exercise plays out over threedays, with at least 500 people taking part.
“We’ll involve everybody who’d actually bepart of a real disaster or attack,” says detective Mike Younger of theMarshall County Sheriff’s Department, who is one of the organizers ofthe simulation. “You need lots of time and planning to define thescenarios that will come into play. You need to pinpoint the resourcesthat will be needed. You need to work with outside agencies to make itcome into place. You need to work with the people out in the field andon the roads to identify possible problems and respond accordingly. Inthe end, if we’ve done all of our homework—and we do do ourhomework—the event runs itself.”
It’s a telling sign, as HSToday has found,that small communities throughout the nation are indeed taking thethreat of terrorism very seriously. From fiscal year 2002 to 2004, some$13.1 billion in federal grants have gone out to states for publichealth and terrorism-preparedness efforts, with much of it tricklingdown into the local counties and cities, where such efforts take shape.In the three fiscal years before that, only $1.2 billion of that typeof funding went to state and local governments. (The Department ofHomeland Security, which has provided $8 billion in such funding sinceit was established on March 1, 2003, allocates 80 percent of thosegrants to local governments. And much of the remaining 20 percent goesto a project within local communities’ borders, further boostingpreparedness/response efforts in towns and counties throughout thenation.)
But the story is about more than money. It’sabout hardworking, dedicated people in those communities making themost of these funds. Indeed, beyond the numbers, the devotion tohomeland-security measures in the panhandle’s Ohio and Marshallcounties underscores the genuine sense of vulnerability within thearea, and how individuals—people who often compete against each otherin numerous other aspects of life—can come together.
This is a region where roaring crowds packfootball stadiums as Ohio County’s Wheeling Park High School Patriotstake on the John Marshall High Monarchs. It’s where—given the exodus ofyoung people seeking jobs in cities like Washington and Atlanta—thecompetitive recruitment of industry is waged heavily. Lately, MarshallCounty earned a highly sought victory: A new Wal-Mart Supercenter. AndOhio County has landed a huge Cabela’s outdoor store, which is hopedwill attract up to 4 million visitors a year.
Both developments are encouraging, in lightof a decline that has seen Marshall County’s population dwindle to34,897 from 35,519 in 2000. Ohio County has seen the same, with acurrent population of 45,828, compared to 47,433 in 2000. Those who arestill around try to eke out a living at the local coal mines, theWheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corp. building and the many chemical plantswithin the Marshall County borders. There’s also casino action at thedog track in Wheeling. And the citizens are sometimes savvy enough toinvent their own fortune. In Moundsville, the county seat in Marshall,they’ve taken a once-active local state penitentiary and turned it intoa major tourism attraction, with more than 20,000 visitors a year.
But when it comes to homeland security, anyideas about one-upmanship between the counties are set aside. There’stoo much at stake, what with all of these chemical companies presentingviable targets. They are targets that are accessible, given thatInterstate 70 threads right through the Wheeling part of the panhandle.Sometimes, residents watch the wealth of trucks roaring by and wonderwhere they came from—and where they’re going. And what intentions theirdrivers may have.
Remembering that day
These are the kinds of foreboding thoughtsthat have kept local officials busy since 9/11. That morning, OhioCounty Sheriff Tom Burgoyne was at his desk in the tax office. (Thesheriff is responsible for tax collections in the county.) He says heheard the ladies in the office scream as the first World Trade Centertower in New York was hit. Then he watched the second one on TV. Thenthe Pentagon.
Immediately, he and local public-safetyresponders swung into high gear. Burgoyne met with his counterparts andpeers within state and local agencies, and they hashed over a long listof troubling questions: Who’s going to mind the dams and the river?Who’s going to inventory the entire community to find out what othertargets are out there? Over in Marshall County, how vulnerable arethose chemical plants and what does it mean to the region in general?
At the time, Burgoyne was putting togetherthat SWAT-like special-response team. He had 33 years of experiencewith the FBI before he left the bureau in 1996 as the senior residentagent in Wheeling. He is a Boston native who married a local girl anddecided to stay, and has since sought to improve local resources andinvestigative tactics to keep his constituents safe. Thespecial-response team was a big item on his “wish” list.
“I had 25 deputies and 10 of ‘em were goodenough and willing to join that team,” he says. “We tried to get thisapproved and started up, but, after Sept. 11, everything reallyaccelerated and we now have one.”
Just recently, the county received $172,000in homeland security funding, much of which will be used to pay for anew, state-of-the-art vehicle for the evidence personnel andspecial-response team— one that will allow it to better maintain andsecure all forensic items gathered at the scene of a disaster or crime.
But preparedness is about much more thanequipment and vehicles. In the panhandle, the awareness of localcitizens has increased dramatically, emerging as an embedded,human-fueled homeland security tool.
“Just last week, I had a member of our countyvoting office contact me because they found a flaw in the electionrecords,” Burgoyne says. “A signature just didn’t match up. When theperson in question arrived to vote, he had a faulty ID card. I turnedthe case right over to the FBI. I wouldn’t have done that in the past,and I don’t think anyone in the voting office would have come to mewith this in the past. Now, as it turned out, it was an innocentsituation. But it demonstrates how much stronger—how much more alertand prepared —we really are.”
And don’t scoff that it’s all for nothing,that no terrorist would even consider such a small, rural area for anattack. Says Burgoyne: “Look, it was all over in the national news thata terrorist was arrested for trying to blow up a mall in Columbus,Ohio. Well, Columbus is just a two-hour drive from us. It makes sense,to a terrorist, to target a small town. Strike a small town and you’regoing to impact the spirit of every small town in America.”
Success breeds success
Ultimately, every year, the panhandle’sefforts are put to the test with the elaborate mock disastersimulations. While simulations took place before 9/11, those attacksserved to accelerate the urgency of, and participation in, theactivities.
In the scenario with mass casualties from anunknown chemical agent as well as a bomb, a fire chief was unable tocommunicate with the explosive-response team because of communicationsand bureaucratic snafus.
“It’s rare that three or more agencies cometogether for training,” says Suzanne Park, who, as outreach manager forthe national center in Moundsville, is one of the lead organizers ofthe mock drills. The center organizes and provides funding for theevent, and deploys its staff to organize it year-round. “But in acrisis situation, you could have everyone responding and no knowledgeof who knows how to do what, or what equipment they have. The firstmock disaster was truly a disaster! Do you know how bad things can getwhen there is no direction, when agencies can’t talk to each otherbecause of technology and—better yet—lack of communication? Whenagencies don’t understand each other’s way of running a scenario? Itcreates total mayhem. Everyone recognized the problem that the firechief was having, realizing that this was a deficiency that everyoneneeded to work on.”
Since that first exercise, each subsequentmock disaster event has been executed more smoothly, resulting in thenational award.
“We saw the need before that day to be veryproactive, to ensure our area first responders were well trained andready for all hazards, not just terrorism,” says Michael Lucey, programmanager of the National Technology Transfer Center Emergency ResponseTechnology Program at Wheeling Jesuit University, a local college. Theprogram helps develop needed technologies for emergency responders andhelps coordinate the annual mock disaster event. “We’re concerned withnot just manmade threats, but the chemical spills, the floods, thenatural disasters that this area is susceptible to. But terrorism ispart of the preparedness effort, too. You never know where the nextattack is going to take place. Terrorism can rear its ugly head at anytime, at any place. One way you can do this is to put them in realisticsituations, using real technology, and see how they respond. The OhioValley is a ‘soft target,’ small-town America, and we are vulnerable.If we’re not proactive, nobody is going to do it for us.”
And those involved with localhomeland-security efforts have found that there’s a reciprocal benefitinvolved: The drills put the counties in better position to land neededhomeland-security funds, which, in turn, help make for better executeddrills. Then the process starts over again.
In 2002, for example, Marshall Countyreceived $7,500 in homeland security funding. This year, it hasreceived more than $262,000, which will provide for more training;improvements in the county’s emergency-operations center; specialchemical-response equipment; and other needs.
“We were really pleased,” says Thomas Hart,who, as director of Marshall County’s Office of Emergency Services,oversees local homeland-security preparedness and planning. “We’vereally worked hard with state officials on this funding. The disasterdrills really help. With the exercises, we’re able to find areas wherewe have gaps, and then apply to the state to address those needs. We’renot buying bells and whistles here.” HST
- It’s a cliché, but it’s true—failure to plan is planning for failure: Local organizers in the West Virginia northern panhandle will spend a year organizing their annual mock disaster drill.
- No community is too small: With a thriving interstate, a big river and chemical plants sprinkled throughout the panhandle, who is to say that a terrorist wouldn’t find ripe opportunity in the panhandle? Local HS coordinators and citizens aren’t taking any chances.
- Act locally, think regionally: One plus one equals more than two, as the panhandle’s Ohio and Marshall counties have put aside competitive interests to collectively improve the region’s homeland-securitypreparedness.
- Another tried but true cliché—success breeds success: By presenting an annual drill that’s worthy of national awards and praise, the local communities prosper with additional homeland-security funding, which then leads to better mock drills, which leads to more HS grants.
- And that funding is “real” money that can make a real difference: Overall, threat- preparedness funding from the federal government to state/locals has increased tenfold since 9/11.