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Are we safer in a post-9/11 reality?
Increased cooperation is largest change
Lt. Sean McCusker of the Hall County SWAT Team, left, helps Sgt. Bonner Burton of the Hall County Sheriff’s Office Training Division into a Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus on Aug. 31 at the sheriff’s training facility in Gainesville. The SCBA delivers enough oxygen for about 30 minutes of working time in the event of a biological crisis. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

On this day a decade ago, Americans watched on TV as thousands died and life as we knew it took a sharp turn.

On Sept. 11, 2001, nearly 3,000 people were killed in attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the crash of United Airlines Flight 93 in a field in Shanksville, Pa., as Islamic terrorists committed the deadliest attack on U.S. soil in the nation's history.

Ten years later we are faced with several questions, but one trumps them all: Are we safer now than we were 10 years ago?

Security has been increased throughout the country at airports, ports, federal buildings and even shopping malls. Hall County authorities have made their own changes, including response methods, training and emergency preparedness.

But preparing for the unknown isn't easy.

"You always hate to say that we are prepared," said David Kimbrell, Hall County emergency management director and fire chief. "I guess that the best thing is that we are more aware and we take steps to continuously improve our preparedness."

Lt. Joe Carter, commander of the Hall County SWAT Team, said Hall is probably more prepared than most counties, but he doesn't think it's possible to be completely prepared for every possibility.

"I would say we're ahead of most folks," Carter said.

And we're ahead of where we were before.

"Before Sept. 11 no one had ever planned or thought of flying a jet plane into a building like that," Kimbrell said.

That surprise attack revealed holes in security, and the first step was to determine potential targets.

Following 9/11, the Georgia Information and Sharing Analysis Center was formed as part of the Georgia Office of Homeland Security to pinpoint those possible targets and allow federal, state and local agencies to share information and intelligence on terrorist groups.

Along with GISAC, the Georgia Office of Homeland Security consists of the Georgia Homeland Security Task Force and the Georgia Emergency Management Agency. Together, they have brought the issue of terrorism preparedness to the forefront of public safety.

Gainesville Police Chief Brian Kelly said the agencies have made communication between departments much more effective.

"Prior to 9/11, you had each department that had their own intelligence, and of course, what they would develop would kind of stay in-house type of thing," Kelly said. "Now I think we've realized that we're all out here doing the same job, so something that the local officers may pick up on may be something that could benefit the state or vice versa."

Identifying terrorist targets
Shortly after 9/11, Hall County authorities in cooperation with those agencies began identifying the area's potential targets, like Buford Dam.

The dam was locked down following the attacks.

Patrick Robbins, chief of public affairs for the Mobile district of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said security has increased but he could not give specifics.

"Security was stepped up immediately after the 9/11 attack and new security measures were put in place and they have remained in place and gone through some modification over time," Robbins said. "But we are fairly comfortable with what we have in place at this point."

One noticeable change, is that prior to 9/11, drivers could stop on the highway over the dam to sightsee. Now that is not an option.

Another potential target may be Gainesville's poultry industry, "anything that may affect a large population of people," according to Kelly.

Similar to water supply, a mass contamination of poultry could affect millions as it is distributed and people consume it worldwide.

Lee Gilmer Memorial Airport also is considered a possible target, though it did not experience any significant changes following 9/11. Chris Rotalsky, Gainesville's assistant public works director, said the airport did implement fencing changes to limit access.

"I think everyone's awareness has certainly increased in regard to security and just paying attention, if nothing else, of people that are on the airfield all the time," Rotalsky said.

Emergency response forever changed
Emergency response has undergone many tweaks in the decade since 9/11, including how authorities initially respond to calls.

Kelly said 9/11 led to an increased response from public safety officers in emergency situations. He said during response situations officers now place more emphasis on analysis before coming to a conclusion on how to handle incidents.

"I think historically everybody would kind of bumrush the scene type of thing, and that's what we historically do ... but I think we have to realize we have to assess, see what we've got first, make sure we've got the resources in place, but don't put all the resources in one sort of pie, because if you have a secondary incident then you've taken out all your emergency responders," Kelly said.

Assistance from surrounding agencies allows a single agency to send a portion of their emergency responders to the scene, while still having responders available in the case of a separate incident.

Increased cooperation and evaluation of a situation may be the largest change in emergency response since 9/11.

"We learned from 9/11 you just don't pull up and do this and do your thing,' said Jerome Yarbrough, deputy fire chief for the Gainesville Fire Department. "You have to take all the elements and surroundings into consideration."

Analysis after an incident has also increased. Fire departments investigate fires more thoroughly than before, Gainesville Fire Chief Jon Canada said.

"It used to be when you had a fire you took it for what it was," he said. "Today, our shift commanders are trained to look around the corner, so to speak. They are trained to look two and three steps ahead. ... They're looking ahead at what other options it could be."

Local fire departments also respond to a lot more than fires.

"Since 9/11 that's increased even more," Canada said.

Fires are actually the smallest portion of incidents the department responds to, he said.

Firefighters also provide emergency medical care, initial response to incidents, on-scene communication, fire investigations and building inspection.

Training for the worst-case scenario
Gainesville firefighters are required to complete 240 hours each year of fire training alone, as well as medical training and other technical rescue training, Canada said.

"There's so many things our personnel have to train for, whether it's hazardous material response, terrorist-type attacks, weapons of mass destruction and all those things grouped into that now come back to the fire service to respond to" Canada said.

Training has increased for law enforcement as well.

Kelly said the Gainesville Police Department trains annually on how to respond to a terrorist situation.

"Even though it may not be a large-scale terrorism nexus, we have local individuals here that want to harm those that are doing good," Kelly said. "It can be anything from suspicious letters, suspicious packages, riots at detention facilities. So we make sure we train for all kind of hazardous things that we may have to do."

Equipment aids local efforts
Authorities have been given thousands of dollars worth of equipment, though, to help them in their added responsibilities.

Local agencies have relied heavily on grants available through the Department of Homeland Security, which was formed in November 2002 as a direct result of 9/11.

"After 9/11 there were millions of dollars devoted to increase local jurisdictions' ability to respond," said Col. Jeff Strickland, deputy chief of the Hall County Sheriff's Office. "Because no matter where an incident happens, whether it's domestic or terrorism, first responders are always going to be the local jurisdiction, and so they have to be able to get a handle on things."

Hall County has used such grants for three emergency management vehicles and will soon receive another. They include a Mobile Command Center, a Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosives Response vehicle and a standard SWAT equipment truck.

The sheriff's office uses the Mobile Command Center to increase surveillance, such as connecting to a live feed from a helicopter above an emergency scene and receiving live feeds from school security cameras.

Carter, with the SWAT team, said prior to 9/11, the sheriff's office did not have the proper equipment to respond to a potential terrorist attack.

Strickland said that's changed now.

"With these Homeland Security funds, we've been able to prepare Hall County to handle most anything that could come this way," he said.

That includes shield vests for the SWAT team, designed to stop up to a .30-caliber rifle round.

"That certainly makes it much, much safer for officers," Carter said.

Hall County authorities agree the county has made every attempt to protect the county from threats.

"I think we're as prepared as we can be," Kelly said. "I think it's something that we keep up daily, weekly, monthly within our training programs ... so I feel pretty comfortable that we're able to respond and at least assess and be in the initial handling of any incidents."

Strickland also assured residents that Hall County has put heavy emphasis on prevention and response if an attack were to occur.

"The Hall County Sheriff's Office is much better prepared to respond to anything that could occur here than we were pre-9/11," he said.