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Are we safe yet?
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
It’s been less than three years since hijacked airliners crashed into New York and Washington DC, and already it’s difficult to remember a time when terrorism wasn’t with us. We read about it in the papers, hear about it on the news, went to war allegedly to prevent it from happening again.
Considering how much time we spend thinking about terrorism, talking about terrorism, and theorizing about when and if terrorists will strike in the US, you’d expect more people would be aware of what we’re doing about terrorism on a local level. But most people in Fort Wayne don’t even know that Fort Wayne has its own Director of Homeland Security, one of only two in the entire state (Indianapolis has the other one).
And probably more people wonder why we even need a Director of Homeland Security. After all, Fort Wayne, and Indiana for that matter, would hardly seem to provide a target for the type of international terrorism consuming so much of our nation’s attention. There was a popular urban legend during World War II that Fort Wayne was seventh of Hitler’s list of possible bombing targets in the US, due to the city’s manufacturing industry. But terrorists don’t pick targets based on that conventional method of warfare; they pick targets based on high visibility, on how many people will be affected and how many people will see it. It’s probably the first time in the history of war where news cycles are factored into the process of planning an attack. We’re told constantly that the threat of terrorism is an unfortunate fact of life now, and for the most part, we don’t doubt it. But is it really a fact of life here?
Well, consider this: if a bomb is detonated in Indianapolis, experts say we could be inundated with people fleeing the site of the attack, many looking for medical attention. Or a massive power outage, like the one that occurred over much of the Northeast last summer, could leave the area vulnerable to disaster. Or a terrorist seeking to set off explosives in downtown Chicago could decide that Fort Wayne is the perfect kind of town to plan, gather materials, and rent the truck.
These, and dozens of other scenarios, are what the Director of Homeland Security has to prepare for.
Still, plenty of people were doubtful when Mayor Graham Richard appointed Bernie Beier as Fort Wayne’s Director Homeland Security in January of 2003. Some of the controversy that surrounded the appointment illustrates a common misconception that many people seem to have, that Homeland Security is just another name for emergency response. We already had an emergency response director. Why do we need this other office?
“One of the problems that you have is that threats of terror and fear of terror is something we never had to face before, so what we had was consequence management,” says State Senator Tom Wyss, who sits on Indiana’s Counter-Terrorism and Security Council (CTASC) “Emergency management directors were trained to respond after the fact. But you also need crisis management — prevention and detection.”
“I think a lot of people mis-understood the complexity of dealing with the new state anti-terrorism task force,” says Fort Wayne Mayor Graham Richard. “ There was legislation 50 years ago that created the local emergency responder system. It’s a county-based system, yet the county doesn’t have a fire service, the county doesn’t have an active hazmat response team.” Since the city of Fort Wayne has the majority of the emergency response resources for Northeast Indiana, it was felt that a director of Homeland Security was needed to plan and coordinate those services. Mayor Richard says, “Everytime I went to a US Congress of Mayor’s meeting, we were told by the federal organizations: ‘Be sure you appoint a Homeland Security Director so that you have a designated person who can get the security clearance and be involved with all the organizations in creating a response for a domestic terrorist attack.’”
In terms of credentials, Fort Wayne couldn’t ask for a more qualified Director of Homeland Security than Bernie Beier. A Fort Wayne native, Beier spent 21 years in the Marine Corps as a counter-terrorism and counter-intelligence specialist, and he holds a Bachelor’s in Criminal Science and a Master’s in Security Management. Beier describes the responsibilities of Homeland Security as a Venn diagram, where the three circles are detection and prevention; reduction of vulnerability; and response and recovery. “Homeland Security is nothing more than a huge integrated management system,” Beier says. “It takes requirements and strategic initiatives from the top and finds a way to fuse or bring together the efforts of everyone that has to execute that.”
For detection and prevention, Beier shares intelligence and information with local law enforcement organizations, and investigates any reports of suspicious activity that come through his office. If the notion of international terrorists targeting Fort Wayne seems a little farfetched, keep in mind that before September 11th, 2001, the most destructive terrorist attack on US soil came courtesy of a few of our own citizens. Our focus on threats from outside our borders and our military action in Afghanistan and Iraq seems to have overshadowed the events in Oklahoma just nine years ago. It’s all part of what Homeland Security covers. “The elements that make up terrorism are diverse in how they choose their target and who their audience is, dependent on their agenda,” says Beier. “Even with the international terrorism that people are concerned about, you look at the larger metropolitan areas nationwide — Chicago, San Francisco, LA, New York. But there’s host of activities associated with an attack that have to take place years before the attack, and those activities don’t happen at the target sights.”
A lot of what Beier does on a day-to-day level falls under the second part of his Venn diagram — reduction of vulnerability. Echoing his earlier comment about Homeland Security enhancing safety programs that are already in place, Beier says he’s not seeking to re-invent the wheel. “I try to do a city-wide or regional risk-management strategy,” says Beier. “In this case, we’re talking bout the threat of terrorism. We add that awareness to a lot of things that, for example, schools or businesses are already doing.”
Beier meets with business groups and companies to try to assess the economic impact a disaster would have on our community. It’s an aspect of Homeland Security that is often overlooked. “If something like 85% of our nation’s critical infrastructure is privately owned and operated (depending on what survey you look at), then I clearly have to be engaged with the private business sector in helping to shape what role each one play.” Beier says. Manufacturing plants and other businesses usually rely on lengthy distribution chains for materials and other supplies. A catastrophe in, say, New Jersey, where a plant in the region might get certain parts, could play havoc with the local economy. The disaster doesn’t even have to be in the US. “There could be a terrorist attack in Indonesia that influences the export of rubber, and a tire plant in the area loses raw materials for months. That’s a major impact.”
Also, an attack in a large metropolitan area near Fort Wayne would have immediate repercussions here. Beier says that after the September 11th attack on the Pentagon, people who fled the site were showing up as far south as Virginia Beach, three hours away, before seeking medical attention. If something happened in Chicago, we could see a large influx of victims to the area.
The third element in Beier’s Benn diagram of Homeland Security — response and recovery — involves training the various emergency services like fire, police, and hazmat to coordinate their reaction to an emergency, so that any first responders can operate most effectively and efficiently. “Previously, we used to respond to isolated incidents,” says Beier. “For example, a fire was probably going to be just a fire, or the SWAT team being called out somewhere might be just a hostage situation, the bomb team even on a bomb or explosive device is probably going to be just that. With the new threats of terrorism and the potential for weapons of mass destruction, we can’t think like that anymore, as a unilateral response. It’s almost always a joint response.” The bomb team, for example, would have to consider the possibility that the explosive device might have chemical agents connected to it, so now it’s part of standard procedure that the hazardous materials team would be notified that the bomb team is responding to a situation. Also, the bomb team wouldn’t begin their work until there’s an ambulance on the scene, with a member of the disaster response team, that’s specifically trained to work with them.
This kind of collaborative effort is a new trend in emergency response all across the nation, and Fort Wayne is actually considered to be ahead of the curve. It’s part of the thinking behind the planned academy over at the old Southtown mall site, which plans to offer training for a wide range of training for police, fire, and EMT, and facilities for other training like National Guard and FBI. Beier explains that in the last two years, there’s been a lot of incident training and joint planning and awareness between different agencies. Not too long ago, a police chief, for example, would know what a police officer was supposed to do in every single emergency situation, but wouldn’t know what the hospital staff was going to do. They never needed to consider it. These days, every agency needs to understand what the other agencies do, and what their requirements are on scene.
The office of Homeland Security actually gives local emergency response agencies a lot more flexibility in planning and preparation. The old system was a federal response plan, described by Beier as “cookie-cutter.” Under Homeland Security, it works in reverse: each community follows national guidelines and develops its own plan based on its strengths and weaknesses.
Federal support is needed, of course, and Senator Wyss, a veteran of area politics with more than 25 years experience, says he’s never seen the level of cooperation between federal and state governments as he has over the issue of Homeland Security. “There is total cooperation through the federal agencies to the state,” he says. “I’ve never seen anything work as smoothly. We have all of these federal agencies, and a tremendous sharing of information and resources back and forth. At that level, we really have our act together.” Still, Wyss says there is resistance at some levels, due to what he labels “turf wars”: emergency or public works organizations that perceive a Homeland Security office as a threat to their jurisdiction. “It doesn’t happen everyday, but it does happen more often than I think we need. I want to bang my head against the wall sometimes, because my observation is that we’ve got a common enemy, and that we should be coming together on this issue.”
Overall, however, the general feeling is one of cooperation, and officials say that Fort Wayne is in excellent shape as far as Homeland Security goes. “Are we safer than any other city our size in the country? No one can know that,” says Mayor Richard. “Clearly, there needs to be constant training and preparation, but I think we’re in the top tier.”
But are we really safe? Hopefully, we’ll never have to face a situation where we find out for sure how effective our Department of Homeland Security really is.