Increased readiness in county results from 9-11
It’s difficult to imagine anything positive coming from last year’s Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
But Garfield County Sheriff Tom Dalessandri insists the heightened preparedness that was necessitated by the vile actions of Islamic extremists spurred local emergency workers to get ready for a possible disaster.
“There’s a new emphasis on emergency preparedness,” Dalessandri said. “That has been in the forefront in Garfield County.”
The preparedness paid off when a disaster came to Garfield County on June 8, not by terrorist attack but in the form of a wildfire that leveled 29 homes at the west edge of Glenwood Springs and forced the evacuation of thousands of residents.
“A lot of what happened at the Coal Seam Fire was a direct result of training and conferences,” he said.
Among Colorado sheriffs, Dalessandri is amongst the leaders when it comes to preparing for terrorism. He is a member of the state’s joint terrorism task force, which allows him access to information, much of which is classified.
“Most important for me is to know what’s going on with other law enforcement agencies across the U.S.,” he said. “They provide us with a weekly update and tells us what the latest information is.”
The training of his deputies has also taken on new significance.
“We’ve already trained our deputies on terrorism and how to enforce the laws,” he said. “I think the deputies are better prepared now.”
The existence of Interstate 70, the railroad and the Colorado River makes Glenwood Springs and much of Garfield County vulnerable to terrorism, Dalessandri said.
“What I’m learning is that there’s virtually no place that is not vulnerable,” he said. “We have utilities, reservoirs, tunnels and international people.”
There was one situation where Garfield County deputies questioned some people who were taking pictures of one of the I-70 tunnels in Glenwood Canyon. A few days earlier the same people, who drove a rented car, took pictures of a power plant near Hayden.
Before Sept. 11, 2001, it is most likely that nobody would have thought twice about such behavior. But since then, reports like these cause people to take a second look, he said.
“It could be substantial or it could be nothing,” he said.
The investigation was taken over by the FBI, Dalessandri said, so he isn’t aware of the final result.
He encourages people to stay vigilant and watchful.
“Don’t be afraid to report incidents,” he added.
Another terrorism-related objective Dalessandri said he’s working on is how to beef up security at local government buildings without making them inaccessible.
Also, because of their involvement, the sheriff’s office was given a law enforcement mobile command trailer.
“That’s one of the tangible things we’ve received,” he said.
Airports around the area are on alert, as well. Whenever a pilot calls into the toll-free federal pilot weather briefing, it begins by saying “Warning! Terrorist alert. The U.S. government wants your help.”
It goes on to say information is still being gathered indicating that “extremist individuals are planning additional terrorist operations against the United States.”
“The aviation community should be continuously alert for suspicious persons, actions and operations around airports,” it added.
Glenwood Springs police chief Terry Wilson said the Glenwood Springs Municipal Airport is likely not a terrorist destination because it is far away from a large population center such as Denver.
“It’s a long way from here to anywhere where there’s a likely target,” he said. “I certainly don’t think we’re immune to it, but I think we’re a much less likely target.”
Also, he said, the airport doesn’t have the types of planes terrorists are suspected of needing to spray chemical and biological weapons.
“Cropdusters seem to be real specific. We don’t have that around here,” he said. “I think it would be really difficult around here to boost an airplane.”
The major difference he’s seen in terms of security is the increased flow of information.
“It’s the flow. There’s a different source you watch for,” he said.
In the days and weeks following the attacks, there was a noticeably heightened sense of alert among citizens, leading many to call police for unusual sightings, Wilson said.
“That died out pretty quickly,” he said. “Basically we get e-mails from (Garfield County emergency management director) Guy Meyers. He’s tied into information from the FBI and he distributes that out to the county.”
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