County officials say homeland security ongoing

A year after Sept. 11, 2001, Shelby County officials say they are much more prepared should a terrorist strike the county. However, they also say there is much more work ahead.

In the past year, members of Shelby County’s Local Emergency Planning Committee as well as many agencies have been hard at work making sure Shelby County has a plan of action.

Last December, the LEPC committee led a mock distaster drill at Hoover Fire Station No. 7 in Inverness. The &uot;functional table-top&uot; disaster drill included about 20 agencies from throughout the county including police, fire, rescue, Emergency Medical Services, Shelby County 911 and Shelby Baptist Medical Center.

Agencies who took part in the drill responded to a fictional scenario of a distressed man who set off a bomb in a tunnel in Coosa Mountain derailing a train near Vandiver and causing a chemical spill.

Using an incident command system, the first responders, in real time, reacted as the scenario unfolded. The scenario eventually ended with the man setting off a radioactive &uot;dirty&uot; bomb in Columbiana.

The mock disaster had agencies reacting to more than 40 deaths as well as continuing to respond to their day-to-day emergency calls.

According to organizers, the goal of the mock drill was to develop a better sense of cooperation and communication among agencies.

Don Greene, director of Shelby County Emergency Management Agency, called the mock disaster a valuable lesson.

He said Shelby County’s responders’ biggest challenge is to improve an outdated communication system.

&uot;It is improved and work is ongoing,&uot; he said of the system. &uot;We are looking for a timeframe to implement a countywide communications system where all of us can respond to each other without going through the loops.&uot;

Shelby County Sheriff’s Department Chief Deputy Chris Curry agreed. He said the mock drill was useful because it pointed out

the county’s weaknesses.

&uot;The communication issue is primarily the major problem we have encountered. We are still working on it, and we have made improvements but we have a ways to go,&uot; he said.

Greene said two recent grants, totalling $170,000, secured by State Sen. Bill Armistead will help to begin improving the communications system countywide. The money will be used to provide state-of-the-art radio equipment for volunteer fire departments.

This is something Curry calls &uot;seed money&uot; which will make for a &uot;starting point&uot; for additional improvements.

Greene said the county has also made it a priority to protect &uot;vulnerable&uot; points.

He said &uot;increased visibility&uot; by law enforcement has also helped.

Curry said the Sheriff’s Department, like other departments, has looked at and addressed a wide variety of potential targets.

&uot;The No. 1 thing you have to be is visible. That will deter initial action. If there is no visibility by public officials, a bad person feels there are no consequences,&uot; he said.

In fact, this past July, the Pelham City Council, at the request of Pelham Police Chief Allan Wade, passed an ordinance prohibiting the parking of unattended vehicles near Colonial Pipeline Company which is just off Interstate 65.

The ordinance gives the police power to immediately remove vehicles they feel are &uot;high risk&uot; to prevent potential terrorism.

Greene said other efforts in the county include increased training by law enforcement and firefighters. He said several local first responders have been sent to Fort McClellan in Anniston to train at the Domestic Preparedness Training Center.

The responders, he said, were exposed to actual live chemicals in terrorism training.

In addition, officials from the Department of Justice have held seminars with educators from Shelby County to train them how to handle students, should disaster strike.

&uot;I feel (emergency responders) are pretty confident on what the unknown might be,&uot; he said.

&uot;Fortunately, we don’t have 110-story buildings, but we have other things we are concerned about. We do have some vulnerable areas here in Shelby County, and if we are not prepared, a strike could be devastating.&uot;

Brenda Bourban, head of the county’s LEPC and a vice president at Shelby Baptist Medical Center, said it may take three years for Shelby County to finish a thorough disaster prepardeness plan.

She said Shelby County’s Health Foundation, which provides thousands of dollars each year for local needs, has made providing equipment and support to local firefighters and emergency medical providers a priority.

From a medical standpoint, she said, SBMC is working to secure grants to purchase a decontamination unit should a chemical or bio-terrorism attack ever occur in the county.

The unit, she said, would be separated from the rest of the hospital and equipped with protective garments, masks and rebreathers, to be worn while hospital employees are decontaminating patients who arrive.

Bourbon said SBMC also wants a &uot;bio-terrorism center&uot; off campus that could handle a smallpox outbreak.

Not to be forgotten, Bourbon said county officials are in the process of developing refrigerator magnets which will feature the phone number of every emergency responder in the county.

The magnets will be distributed through the mail. Also included will be a brochure which lists the steps residents should take in a chemical or bio-terrorism emergency as well as other disasters.

&uot;If we had an attack today, would Shelby County be ready? We would be more ready than a year ago; but we would need help,&uot; she said. &uot;We have so many volunteer units and such a growing population. We have done a lot, but we have a long way to go.&uot;