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900 Come to Learn Local Terrorism Response

From the wrecked walls of the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, local emergency response teams emerged as heroes. This week, hundreds came to Arlington to learn how it was done.

“Obviously these people are no longer working from theory,” said Dan Scott, an assistant fire chief in Los Angeles County.

Scott, along with representatives of over 900 jurisdictions across the country, gathered for a three-day conference outlining the local response to the Pentagon attack.

In the months after the attack, county officials and emergency response teams received countless requests to speak around the country. They decided on a different course of action.

“Why have Arlington staff travel all over the country when we can have them come to us?” said Paul Ferguson, Arlington County board chair.

Co-sponsored by the county and several federal agencies, including the FBI and the Office for Domestic Preparedness in the Department of Homeland Security, the conference focuses on the theme, “Teamwork: a model for the nation.”

Speakers from Arlington’s fire and police departments, along with federal officials explained how they coordinated rescue and recovery efforts.

“Arlington is by far one of the best there is,” said FBI Agent Christopher Combs, who spoke on Incident Command. The key to success was that various agencies knew how to interact with each other before disaster struck, said Combs. “We cross-train all the time in Arlington.”

LOCAL OFFICIALS heard good news from the federal level. In separate speeches at the conference on Monday, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Tom Ridge pledged federal support for local emergency preparedness efforts.

“We need to unlearn the myth that the federal government alone can protect us,” said Ashcroft. The front line of defense sits in local jurisdictions, not in Washington, he said. “There is a difference between having your feet on a desk and having your feet on the street.”

Ridge echoed his sentiments. “We in the department believe that the homeland is secure when the home town is secure,” said Ridge.

Since March, homeland security funds for local jurisdictions have approached $4 billion. Ridge said he expects Congress to approve another $3.5 billion soon. But simply having the dollars available isn’t enough, he said. “We’re going to have to set priorities. We’re going to have to build up over the next couple of years.”

Ridge is asking each state to submit a list of priorities so that federal funds can address specific local needs. “The role of localities in prevention is absolutely critical as well,” he said.

Arlington has received over $23.9 million in federal homeland security grants since Sept. 11, 2001. Local officials said comments from Ridge and Ashcroft were encouraging.

“I think it was appropriate and welcome news to this crowd of over 900 localities,” said Ferguson. “Terrorism is international in nature; the first responders are always going to be local.”

FOR SOME, federal support at the conference sent a strong message about the importance of improving local preparedness. “I think the federal officials must realize it’s a necessary conference,” said Oscar Ortiz, mayor of Port Arthur, Texas.

Port Arthur houses three of the largest oil refineries in the country, so a terrorist attack there could have disastrous consequences, he said. “So we need this information,” said Ortiz.

Currently, Port Arthur police and firefighters are being trained to deal with terrorist threats. It’s a difficult and costly process, in more jurisdictions than one.

“Homeland security money is coming in handy,” said Robert Turner, director of public safety in Indianapolis. “But you almost have to go in and retrain your law enforcement completely.”

The conference continues after The Connection’s press time. Look for additional coverage next week.