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Erie County Steps Up Homeland Security Since 9/11

By Mark Scott

Buffalo, NY – When the terrorists struck in New York City and Washington last September 11th, law enforcement agencies in Buffalo quickly mobilized. No one knew for sure where the terrorists would strike next. While there was not then -- or even in the months that followed -- a specific threat to our area, local authorities say they're more vigilant, informed and prepared than they were prior to the attacks.

It was a warm, August morning a few weeks back. Fire trucks from several area departments were stationed outside the Erie County Emergency Services Training Academy in Cheektowaga. Years ago, this was a place where firefighters trained to do what they do best -- and that's put out fires. But today, the challenge is greater for firefighters undergoing training here. They now must learn how to respond to a hazardous materials spill or an anthrax attack.

The Academy itself plays a more critical role. It was here where Erie County set up its command center for Y2K. And, says Emergency Services Commissioner Mike Walters, this is where an emergency operations center was set up last September 11th.

"We were here. We opened up our EOC very early in the incident because we didn't know exactly what was happening," Walters said. "We were ready to operate an emergency operation if we needed to. Basically, we did. We used this as a gathering point for the help we sent down to New York City from Erie County."

In addition to this facility, the Giambra administration is planning a public safety campus in downtown Buffalo. While the concept for the new campus has been in the works for two years, County Executive Joel Giambra says 9/11 showed just how important it will be as part of the county's homeland security effort.

"Obviously, we're much more in tune with emergency responses. We have to be more cautious. We have to be more deliberate about homeland security. We are a border community," Giambra said. So, I think all of us locally are much more aware, if you will, about a potential threat. We're trying to do all that we can to prevent that from happening.

That awareness has been passed along to the 70,000 law enforcement officers in New York State. Most police agencies are now linked to a statewide Counter-Terrorism Network that passes along information about potential terrorists or their activities. Authorities say information is the single, most-effective weapon in the fight against terrorism. And so is officer training, says Erie County Sheriff Patrick Gallivan.

"Ultimately, every police officer will get this training program, essentially to get them to change their way of thinking," Gallivan explained. "We'll school them on some of the things going on in the Middle East -- terrorist operations, suicide bombings, response to chemical type weapons -- whatever it might be."

Gallivan says, as far as he knows, there has never been a specific terrorist threat in our region. He acknowledges the potential for an attack here is less than the risk facing some of the nation's largest cities. Yet, Gallivan, like Giambra, points to the border crossing as one reason local authorities must be vigilant. The U.S. Coast Guard has set a security zone around the Robert Moses Power Project. Penalties for violators are severe -- a $10,000 fine and ten years in prison. And the Erie County Water Authority has spent nearly $1 million to safeguard the area's watersupply. Executive Director Robert Mendez says more security improvements are planned.

"We're going to be hiring an outside security expert to do a complete analysis of the Authority's production and distribution systems," Mendez said. "The consultant will then make recommendations on what we can do to enhance our current security levels."

While law enforcement examines ways of making the area more secure, the region's medical experts are working to make sure they're prepared -- either to handle mass casualties in an attack or respond with antidotes if chemical or biological weapons are used.

Several weeks after 9/11, anthrax was sent by mail to recipients in New York City, Washington and Florida. While it was never detected here, Erie County Health Commissioner Anthony Billittier said he received more than 100 calls from people concerned about the powdery substance. He says the past year has been a challenging one for those in public health.

Billittier says enough supplies and medications are stockpiled here to get the county through the first 12 to 18 hours of a crisis. After that, he says, the federal government has the capability of flying in what's needed.

The preparedness of local hospitals, police agencies and infrastructure suppliers is being assessed right now by a county task force headed up by Deputy County Executive Carl Calabrese. But there are always immediate needs.

Just last week, Sheriff Gallivan made a pitch to County legislators for a new helicopter. He gave them a chance to ride in a prototype. While legislators say they support replacing the Sheriff's aging craft, Air One, the new helicopter would cost $2 million. Gallivan says he's hopeful its potential use as part of the homeland security effort will attract some federal funding.

There's that phrase again. Homeland security. A year ago today, it wasn't in anyone's lexicon. Now, it's on everyone's mind, a lasting legacy of 9/11.