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A YEAR AFTER

County Puts Focus on Security

Terror: Response to 9/11 includes new measures and increased vigilance by law enforcement agencies, airports, water district and the port.

September 11, 2002|TIMOTHY HUGHES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Walking in Washington, D.C., Ventura County Undersheriff Craig Husband heard the explosion when American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon across the Potomac River.

Husband, in the nation's capital for a law enforcement conference, saw hundreds of panicked government employees pour out of office buildings after learning of the terrorist attacks.

"Everything shut down and Washington turned into a ghost town. I just wanted to go home and be with my family," he said.

A year later, Ventura County law enforcement and public health officials are still learning from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks while fine tuning a response plan in the event of a local strike.

There are regular patrols now at Oxnard and Camarillo airports and at the Port of Hueneme, officials said. Communication has vastly improved between federal and local law enforcement agencies, officials said.

The county's largest water provider--responsible for delivering supplies to 80% of Ventura County residents--has hired security officers and shored up anti-contamination measures at its six reservoirs and along 135 miles of pipeline.

Husband said commanders receive regular briefings from intelligence officers in the county's Terrorism Working Group, made up of department representatives and public health officials.

Deputies and commanders trained to chase down criminals have added to their duties the gathering of information on possible terrorist attacks, Husband said.

"It altered our mission and expanded it," he said of the events of Sept. 11. "We view our mission now as one in which the front-line officer could get information that is a small piece of the puzzle that might provide info on a terrorist attack."

The World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks demonstrated how local police and fire departments can be thrust into warlike events long before military personnel are dispatched.

"We learned from that experience that local law enforcement are the first people to respond," Husband said. "We have a primary role in protecting our residents from terrorist attacks. It's the local beat cop that sees everything. It's not going to be someone in Washington."

Nearly 300 of the Sheriff Department's 800 sworn officers, as well as dispatchers and other non-sworn employees, have undergone intensive counterterrorism and bioterrorism training. More training is planned, he said.

County firefighters observed how their New York City colleagues responded to the initial attacks and subsequent fires.

"We learned how fragile life is," said county Fire Chief Bob Roper. "The public is still looking for us to take immediate action [in a suspicious incident], but we will take a couple of minutes to question what is really going on."

County fire officials are awaiting about $2 million in federal money for additional equipment needed to combat a potential bioterrorist attack, Roper said.

Meanwhile, officials with the Calleguas Water District said that the threat of possible contamination forced them to spend nearly $250,000 on new security measures.

"The first thing we did was acquire special equipment that can detect subtle changes in the water," General Manager Don Kendall said. "Clearly [the Sept. 11 attacks] made us more vigilant and looking for anything that is out of the ordinary. We are in perpetual lock-down now."

In the last year, the water district, which serves more than 600,000 county residents, has instituted a strict badge screening process for employees and visitors to its six reservoirs and administrative offices, Kendall said.

Security guards now patrol the reservoirs 24 hours a day, and three are assigned to the agency's largest treated water reservoir, 10,000-acre-foot Lake Bard between Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks.

All access points along the district's complex system of underground water pipes that cross the county have also been secured, Kendall said. No longer are access covers secured by metal bolts. Since Sept. 11, all have been welded shut, he said.

At the Port of Hueneme, Coast Guard officials concerned about proximity to Naval Base Ventura County stepped up security at each entrance and instructed harbor pilots who guide container ships into port on ways to detect possible terrorist activity.

There have been no reports of suspicious activity at the port, said Jess Herrera, vice president of the Oxnard Harbor District.

At Oxnard Airport, the only one in the county with commercial jet service, police officers are present during aircraft operations.

Police Chief Art Lopez said the airport security detail is among the many changes that have taken place at his department in the months after the attacks.

A new position was created for an intelligence officer, who is assigned to filter through the dozens of faxes and e-mails from federal and state law enforcement agencies that reach the department's headquarters daily.

The city's proximity to the naval base, a potential terrorism target, made it imperative that officers become more aware of potential threats, Lopez said.

"This has all heightened the awareness that we could potentially have in our city weapons of mass destruction," Lopez said. "And that's not something we ever thought about in an agricultural town like Oxnard."

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