Heightened State of Awareness

To many, it seems like only yesterday, not a year, since two hijacked commercial airliners crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, changing the course of American history.

Or since a third hijacked airliner slammed through a portion of the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. and, since, on board a fourth hijacked plane, an apparent struggle between passengers and terrorists caused the airliner to crash into a rural Pennsylvania field.

And it seems like the country — and Kitsap County — will never be the same.

Even thousands of miles away from the terror, a wide variety of service-oriented agencies and government departments have undergone a sea change over the last 12 months.

A psychological change.

“People here have a heightened sense of reality,” said Dave Magnenat, deputy director of the county’s 911 service. “As a whole, the county has reacted to a new reality.”

That’s a common theme.

No matter which agency — whether it’s the Central Communications (CenCom) staff, the county’s Department of Emergency Management, Kitsap Transit, the Washington State Patrol or Risk Management of Kitsap County — there is but one refrain.

“There is a heightened awareness,” said Barbara Razey, a risk manager for Kitsap County. “While our everyday lives aren’t changed too much, the events have made everybody conscious of the potential dangers to government entities as well as regular citizens.”

Kitsap Transit service development director John Clauson agrees. “We have become a little more cognizant of who’s on and around our transit facilities,” he said. “Most of our operational folks are wearing employee ID badges, now, for instance.”

Laura Jull, of the county Department of Emergency Management, says that increased awareness, if wielded properly, can be a good survival tool.

“Anyone who reads the newspaper or watches TV is aware of the potential dangers that are out there,” Jull said. “It’s in their face everyday.

“Hopefully, people are translating their ‘heightened awareness’ into emergency preparedness and turn it into a positive for themselves,” she said.

The fear

Easier said than done, since fear gripped communities nationwide even before the sun set on Sept. 11, 2001, and Kitsap was no exception.

“Shortly after the attacks and the anthrax scares, sugar spilled on a table in a restaurant became suspicious,” Magnenat said. “No joke.”

Not that 911 dispatchers ignored those calls. It was hard to, since dispatchers received up to five such calls a day after the nation learned of anthrax scares.

“After Pearl Harbor was bombed, there was this big concern, a panic, along the west coast because nobody knew if there would be an invasion of California,” Magnenat said. “There was always this other dimension to what would normally be an everyday occurrence. People wondered, ‘Is this somehow tied into or leading to another attack?’ ”

An outcrop of this type of fear fed a smattering of hate crimes throughout Kitsap County, probably most notably in the Seabeck area, said Kitsap County Sheriff Steve Boyer.

Within hours of the terrorist attack, a distraught Navy wife phoned neighbors of Middle Eastern descent, leaving a vaguely threatening message on their answering machine.

Deputies responded, and the woman later apologized.

“They were understandably upset,” Boyer said. “That behavior is not appropriate and we investigated it and it got resolved. Our job is to protect the citizens and protect the peace — our role hasn’t changed on that type of thing.”

Boyer said he was pleased with the Kitsap community overall in the wake of the terrorist attacks.

“This is a very tolerant, enlightened area,” Boyer said. “We didn’t have any major problems or radical church burnings.”

But some residents of Middle Eastern descent felt understandably uncomfortable after the attacks — there were reports of Kitsap residents staring surreptisously at them in parking lots, as if their very presence was suspect.

“This was the first real attack on U.S. soil,” Boyer said. “I feel so proud to be a resident here. We need to get past the rhetoric and the verbiage and keep communicating.”

The planning

So that’s what started to happen.

Agencies made plans. They started to prepare. Take charge.

Tapping expertise provided by emergency management officials, the county commissioners crafted a comprehensive policy detailing how to prevent and respond to bomb threats to the courthouse in Port Orchard.

The courthouse received several bomb threats late last year, following the terrorist attacks, and, rather than worry and do nothing, county officials did something.

That policy is in force today.

“Employees are instructed to closely observe their workspace,” Razey said. “And we are generally more vigilant about the mail and any strange packages with the tell-tale signs.”

Kitsap Transit officials also ratcheted up security levels at their bases and even at points of destination.

Worker driver buses that before the attacks drove right onto the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard campus must stop short of the gates of the county’s biggest employer in the morning.

Passengers are dropped off and trained security dogs perform sweeps of all the buses, after which PSNS personnel guard the buses.

Later, most of the buses are transported on base and, when the afternoon whistle blows, employees can walk out of their offices and onto the bus.

A PSNS spokeswoman is keeping mum about what has changed at the yard since the Sept. 11 attacks, saying only that there is a “heightened awareness.”

Boyer said the attacks prompted a review of his department’s security operations and procedures, and local law enforcement agencies and public safety agencies joined forces to get trainined on security issues.

“We made security improvements internally and externally,” Boyer said. “That we way should be able to better respond to any individual emergency, whether it’s natural or human-made.”

“The idea is, if you prepare for an earthquake, you’re prepared for everything including floods or even terrorist attacks,” Jull said.

Officials launched serious discussions about the security of the local highway system, including the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and ferries, the latter of which touched off a fiery debate that pitted security issues against civil liberties.

Capt. Kim Zangar, of the Washington State Patrol, said staffing levels at the ferry terminals and on the ferries has increased, including additional bomb-sniffing dogs and their handlers.

Agencies concerned with ferry security have even established a 1-800 hotline for commuters who think they’ve spotted suspicious activity aboard a vessel or at a terminal.

Credible information earlier intimated the Narrows Bridge could be threatened, as well as all other major bridges on the west coast.

Lt. Bob Johnson, of the State Patrol, said there are security plans in place with regard to the bridge, and there has been an ongoing exchange of information among all the public safety agencies.

“We are operating at a heightened state of awareness,” Johnson said. “That hasn’t changed at all since last year.”

The new reality

And that’s just it.

There’s a new reality. Public officials know now that the U.S. is vulnerable, and it’s wise to protect ourselves.

Emergency Management is trying to do just that on a small scale by pursuing grant funding that would re-launch a neighborhood program, which operates in partnership with block watch programs.

“It’s about checking up on each other,” Jull said. “If there is a gas leak in the neighborhood that needs to be shut off, then it can be taken care of; neighbors can make sure that little Johnny is OK because they know his folks aren’t home yet and there would be people to check up on elderly neighbors in wheelchairs. It’s all about getting teams of neighbors together to help each other.”

The program, called K-PREP, or Kitsap Practices Responsible Emergency Preparedness, would train neighbors to prepare and react to emergencies should they befall a community.

After President George W. Bush called for a citizens’ corps, an overwhelming number of residents called the emergency department, asking if there was a program available to join.

Jull and others are still working to get it off the ground. Emergency management even launched a bioterrorism hotline for Kitsap residents concerned about wierd looking packages or powdery substances.

The launch came shortly after the first of many anthrax scares in the nation.

Meanwhile, a comprehensive effort among Kitsap, Clallam and Jefferson counties to prepare the region for a bioterrorist event and or a flu or smallpox outbreak is now underway.

The $20 million promised last year in federal bioterrorism funds is now trickling through the state of Washington and, of that, a little more than $500,000 will flow to the tri-county region — under the direction of the Kitsap County Health District.

Kitsap County Health District Director Scott Lindquist said the first step is to assess strengths and weaknesses among the counties’ agencies and to fix anything that needs to be fixed

“This upfront funding is supposed to focus on determining existing capacities among the jurisdictions,” Lindquist has said.

In other areas, however, it’s more of the same, but with a twist.

“Things really have not changed significantly here,” said Ron McAffee, the director of CenCom. “We pride ourselves on being professional as we can be, and that concept carried through the Sept. 11 situation. We had a good product before and we still have a good product.

“This situation has been similar to the school shootings,” he said. “When we first got those reports, we went into those training sessions, and there was a heightened awareness about activity in schools. Naturally, we started asking a lot of question and dug deeper when we received calls about schools.”

“Dispatchers now have another item to check off on their mental list,” Magnenat added. “Could this be terrorist-related? Is this leading up to some kind of attack? Before, that mental list didn’t include a line item about terrorism.”

It’s definitely different now, he said.

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