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County Readies for Possible Terrorism

March 20, 2003|Tracy Wilson and Jenifer Ragland | Times Staff Writers

In the hours before the United States went to war with Iraq, Ventura County emergency-response workers hunkered down Wednesday in a windowless bunker two stories below ground level to review disaster plans.

They held meetings. They watched CNN. They updated phone lists and identified potential targets. They made sure the bright red satellite phones stationed at desks in the 1,800-square-foot nerve center worked properly.

And they periodically glanced up at a wall of ticking clocks, including one set ominously to Iraqi time, and prepared for the possibility of terrorist attacks in response to the U.S. attack on Iraq.

When President Bush announced the war began about 7:15 p.m., those manning the emergency operation center began "more intensive planning" for any contingency, said emergency services worker Jay Bayman. A few extra people were also called in to work.

"We're making sure the personnel and equipment are available," Bayman said. "Now that the war's started, things are going to be a little more active than they used to be."

Military base personnel and police agencies across Ventura County spent Wednesday on heightened alert as they prepared to handle any emergency that may arise.

"We're in that lull mode because we haven't been contacted," said Capt. Laurel Tidemanson, spokeswoman for the Channel Islands Air National Guard base at Point Mugu, adding that the airlift unit stationed at the base would likely be involved in a homeland defense mission. "We're going through preparedness training for just about anything ... But part of our normal training is to be ready to go anywhere at a moment's notice."

Naval Base Ventura County is also on heightened alert. Officials are checking identification for anyone trying to enter the base and are conducting random car searches daily, said spokesman Vance Vasquez.

Many squadrons stationed on the base are already gone, he said, but there is some anxiety among the people who live and work there.

"Families have spouses who are deployed, and it's only natural to be worried about safety," he said. "But they've been trained well, and they know the job they have to do."

At the county Government Center in Ventura, officials began staffing the subterranean Emergency Operations Center with three people about 4 p.m. Monday, about three hours before the president addressed the nation.

It marked the first time that the Ventura center has been operational since the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The center, a darkened room with banks of phones and television screens mounted on one wall, is designed to serve as a planning base in the event of disaster. It is there that law enforcement, military, health, school, city, disaster relief, utility company and fire personnel would meet to assure proper communication.

For example, if military personnel or hospital patients needed to be evacuated, center officials could quickly turn to school officials to make arrangements for buses.

Laura Hernandez, assistant director of the county's Office of Emergency Services, said that while officials are uncertain about what may lie ahead, they are confident in their ability to respond to any situation.

"I think we're as likely a target as any other community, and I think we are better prepared than some of other counties because we have had disasters in the past," she said.

During the last decade, Ventura County health and rescue agencies have confronted earthquakes, floods, chemical spills and firestorms as well as the crash of an Alaska Airlines jetliner off the coast.

Officials say those disasters have provided valuable lessons, teaching public safety workers how to respond quickly and efficiently when calamity strikes.

More than 100 county sheriff's deputies, firefighters, search-and-rescue crew members and deep-sea divers readied within minutes of the crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261 in January 2000. Hernandez said the operations center opened 15 minutes after the crash and for several days served as a liaison for 73 federal, state and local agencies.

The center was opened six times in 1998 during El Nino storms, and for several days after the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

"I think we are probably one of the most prepared counties in the state, if not the nation, because we have had the fortune or misfortune of these large events," said Sandi Wells, chief public information officer for the Ventura County Fire Department.

For months, public health and safety agencies working under the umbrella of the Terrorism Working Group have been preparing for a host of worst-case scenarios. Military bases, government buildings, hospitals, airports -- even shopping malls -- have been identified as possible targets for terrorists.

The county Fire Department has a mobile decontamination trailer on standby to respond to a possible biochemical attack. The department also has sensitive monitors capable of detecting chemical agents, Wells said.

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