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Public safety officials added new dimension to their job after Sept. 11

On a bright September morning, America changed. Thousands lost their lives and those they left behind still struggle with that loss. Every American felt the impact of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but eventually life resumed as usual and for most, there was little tangible disruption in their lives. For the men and women in public safety, however, there is a daily difference in the way they do their jobs.

"We never thought it could happen here, at least I didn't think it could," Rockdale County Sheriff and Emergency Management Director Jeff Wigington admitted. "We thought something might be aimed at us, but the attack would be somewhere else. That day we sent additional deputies to the courthouse. Before, we just had the bailiffs with the judges, but that day security began to change."

Newton County Emergency/Risk Management Deputy Director Jody Nolan said he was in the midst of getting a sobering reminder of terrorism in America when he got news of the New York attacks. He was at the Georgia Public Safety Training Center in Forsyth with hundreds of other public safety officials and his group had just watched a film on the Oklahoma City bombing.

"They turned on the lights and we were sitting there in awe with a great deal more information than we ever knew about that incident," Nolan said, adding that the facilitators called for a break after the film. During the break, almost simultaneously, pagers and cell phones began ringing as the class participants heard from family, friends and coworkers about what was taking place in New York. They rushed to television sets as the training center was put on lockdown.

Rockdale County Fire Department Deputy Chief of Operations Dan Morgan said he had been with the fire department about a year at the time of the attacks.

"I was painting a fire hydrant on Ga. 20, up in Station 5's territory. Somebody pulled up on the side of the road and said, 'Do y'all know what's going on? You need to get back to the station.' The first plane had already hit," he said.

Covington Police Department Capt. Ken Malcom said law enforcement was a different ballgame after Sept. 11.

"There is now an added concern for law enforcement as a whole," he said. "Since Sept. 11, in the last 10 years, we now have to be aware of the added risks of a lone individual or a group who would use some type of activity to harm large numbers of people. Before 9/11, you didn't think of that as a likely type of criminal behavior to occur. Now, it's something we have to plan for."

Wigington said construction plans for the RCSO law enforcement building were altered after Sept. 11 to include concrete walls and bulletproof glass.

"We hardened our building, or made it more secure, and that was when the focus went to harden buildings," he said, adding that security at the Rockdale County Courthouse was also increased to include more deputies, security cameras and security checkpoints.

Regionally and throughout the state, more attention was focused on security as the Homeland Security Task Force, comprised of top first responder personnel, was created by then-Gov. Roy Barnes. From that task force several regional councils were created, including the All-Hazards Council of Metro-Atlanta. Wigington continues to serve in leadership positions with both the task force and the council.

"Rockdale is represented and connected very well and knows the latest things going on in the region and the state," he said.

Through grant funding, RCSO has received much equipment that can be used throughout the region in the event of disaster. Equipment includes 4-wheelers, 6-wheelers, a truck, generators, tents, coveralls, gas masks, particulate masks and gloves.

"We've received a mass casualty trailer (one of seven in metro Atlanta), which has first aid equipment for 300 people so in the event of a major disaster, you can provide a lot of first aid. We have a mass shelter trailer, which you can take to an existing building and set up a shelter," he said. "The biggest thing was in 2006, we ordered and received our mobile command vehicle from Homeland Security money. Anything we have if they need it in the region, we're willing to help because they'll help us if we get in that situation."

Morgan said he believed 9/11 was something that made every fireman think about what happens when they're the ones going into a burning building and everybody else is coming out.

"On a day in and day out basis, it just made us more aware of the inherent dangers of the job. Of the firemen that I knew, it didn't make them doubt themselves or the job they were doing," he said.

He pointed out that the collapse of the Twin Towers was an unprecedented event and nobody expected that to happen.

"We probably do pay a little more attention to building construction now. It's always been a part of our training, but that brought it home," he said.

Nolan said he's seen the focus of all emergency responders change with the recognition that terrorism can happen here, it can be homegrown and it can be directed at them.

"Law enforcement was already looking over their shoulders, but it wasn't something that was in the back of every first responder's mind," he said. "But fire and EMS personnel now have to stop and think if they get a 'shots fired' call We've learned a lot from what goes on in Israel. They bait you in to start taking care of the wounded, then when public safety personnel gets there, that is typically when they set off the secondary device."

Nolan said that it is fairly easy to learn how to assemble a bomb or mix chemicals to cause disaster.

"The Internet has been a great help in educating persons of all ages, but it has also expanded terrorists' capabilities with instructions on everything from how to cultivate anthrax to building a fertilizer bomb," he said. "Before Sept. 11, emergency management priorities were primarily geared toward natural disasters -- floods, tornadoes, ice storms and transportation accidents. Now, there's been more of a focus on dealing with man-made disasters -- chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear explosives -- it's something that is on the mind of every first responder. We've provided more training with more scenarios that involve terroristic threats."

He said even a simple good deed like returning a lost pocketbook is now something to make a person stop an think.

"Before Sept. 11, most people went over and picked it up and looked for ID. Now, it needs to be reported to authorities," he said, adding that the Homeland Security motto, "If you see something, say something," is good to adhere to.

Malcom said one of the positive things that's come out of the Sept. 11 tragedy is that law enforcement on all levels -- federal, state and local now share intelligence.

"Law enforcement has recognized the importance of intelligence-led policing utilizing the information available in order to do our daily duties, assess threats and to prepare and forecast based on what we've heard," he said. "Intelligence-led policing is the future of law enforcement and hopefully it will help us prepare for possible threats."

Malcom pointed out that federal and state authorities have seen the importance of the role of local law enforcement in national security, pointing out that a local police officer arrested Eric Rudolph. When a patrol officer makes a routine traffic stop, he is trained to look for possible future threats and pass that information along.

Wigington said there has been a lot of coordination with the federal and state authorities that was sorely lacking in the past.

"Now we have the National Incident Management System (NIMS). The government requires that we take these courses so when everybody responds, they all act the same way," he said, adding that prior to 9/11 radio communication just between local agencies was often not possible.

"When 9/11 hit, there were multiple agencies coming from different states and they could not communicate with each other and it was a big problem. Now, most agencies have access to equipment that makes the radios compatible where everybody can talk to one another."

In addition to better communication, Wigington said there is a national stockpile of medications that would be used specifically to combat disease caused by terrorism.

"We keep them in areas we don't always know about, but we have to have a local dispensing site and a written plan to practice it," he said.Most public safety officials warn that the question isn't "if" it happens again, but only a matter of when.

"I think we're a much better prepared society than we were 10 years ago. Fortunately, nothing very big has happened and over time, people tend to go back to thinking that preparation is not very important. It's still important to stay prepared and plan. Hopefully, this will be an anniversary with no problems," Wigington said.