Laurel security upgraded and tightened since 9/11

As the nation commemorates the 10th anniversary of 9/11, several top officials in Laurel not only recall that pivotal day, they also point to security measures that were put in place in response to it.

Martin Flemion, the city's deputy administrator and emergency services director, said he wasn't in Laurel on 9/11 but was in Carey, Ohio. His wife's family has a dairy farm there, and he had gone to watch their livestock compete at the county fair.

"We were in the judging compound when the competition was interrupted to say a plane had flown into the (World Trade Center's) towers, which we thought was an accident," Flemion said. "When we got back to the farm, we heard of the other planes, and I made calls back here to find out how people were doing. The lines were maxed out, so it took a while to get through."

Flemion cut his vacation short and drove back to Laurel.

"What struck me on the way back was when we got to I-64, in West Virginia, all of the bridges were decorated with American flags," he said.

At the time, Flemion was the public works director, but shortly after Mayor Craig Moe took office in 2002, Flemion became the deputy administrator and was put in charge of emergency services operations as the city management worked to develop a response plan that went beyond weather-related incidents.

"The mayor wanted to revamp our response plan, so the emergency management division was created, and its emphasis was emergency preparation and coordination to handle events such as a 9/11," Flemion said.

Moe said he made emergency management one of his top priorities when he came into office a year after 9/11.

"I believed we had to get our community ready for any foreseeable event," Moe said. "Some things were done when I came in, but I wanted to open up communications (between agencies) so we'd have things in place to come together quickly for whatever incident that might happen."

When the 9/11 attacks occurred, Moe said he was working in his office as Maryland's assistant secretary of state and initially thought a single, low-flying plane had hit the twin towers in New York.

"When I turned on the television and saw the second plane, I knew that we were under attack and that lots of lives would be lost," Moe said.

And with nearly 3,000 casualties in the 9/11 attacks, Moe said as mayor, he wanted to implement new security initiatives here for emergency situations.

Tapping into federal funds

Laurel could be vulnerable due to its close proximity to the nation's capital, the National Security Agency, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and other critical locations. In addition, it was not lost on local officials that the 9/11 terrorists stayed at two motels in Laurel, used the Laurel Library's computers and trained at a nearby small airport.

"It was important to not sit idly by but have our emergency operational plans up to date and constantly reach out to the community so we would know each other's roles. Because in a time of emergency, it takes all of us working together," Moe said.

In 2003, the city established an all-volunteer Community Emergency Response Team program. Flemion said they decided to implement CERT after seeing residents pitch in to help during a tornado that hit the city 11 days after 9/11. However, they saw that at times, volunteers were at risk, he said, when they tried to do things such as cut downed trees that were still caught up in electrical wires.

"We wanted to have a formalized volunteer group that would be trained to watch out for themselves in an emergency and not become a burden to our response teams," Flemion said.

The curriculum for CERT training is set by the federal government, but Flemion said the city added CPR training, defibrillator use, traffic management, animal disaster training and shelter operation procedures.

Following the 9/11 attacks, the federal government made millions of dollars available through its Homeland Security Office to local governments for security needs. Laurel officials successfully applied for those funds and used them on a number of projects.

According to Flemion, since 9/11, the city has received more than $1.3 million in Homeland Security funds. Those funds helped to pay for equipment in the city's emergency operations center, located in the Municipal Center; and to outfit a state-of-the-art mobile command unit, which went into service in 2004. The mobile unit serves as a back-up to the county's mobile unit, and because Homeland Security funds were used on it, the command unit can be called into service by federal officials for emergencies up and down the eastern seaboard.

"It's been dispatched for the Real McCoy on a fairly frequent basis, such as a barricade and hostage situation, and when police officer (Richard) Findley was killed on Bowie Road," Flemion said. "If the Police Department was destroyed, that unit could fulfill our technical needs, along with the Emergency Center at City Hall."

City officials also used Homeland Security funds to replace and upgrade the city's analog radio system to a digital one, making it possible for Laurel emergency responders to communicate with emergency officials in other jurisdictions, including federal and state, on frequencies dedicated solely to emergency responders to a specific event. The new technology was used for the first time by fire and rescue officials during a large brush fire in Laurel in February.

"It worked seamlessly. This radio technology is much different from the old days. It makes what we had before look like tin cans and string," Flemion said.

Another change that came about after 9/11 is that city officials are sharing more information and working more closely with other jurisdictions on security issues, including the federal government.

"Before 9/11, there was a lot of 'this is my jurisdiction, and I'm taking care of mine only' attitude. A lot of that is gone, and we have coordination in place that was not in existence prior to 9/11, and it's working well," Flemion said. "We have quicker processes to assist our neighbors, and there's no worry of who will pay what it costs because an agreement is in place now, statewide, that wasn't in place before for reimbursements."

Police, fire make plans

In December, Police Chief Richard McLaughlin, who was working and on call all day on 9/11, said he appointed Police Officer James Brooks to serve as the department's homeland supervisor, the person designated to work with the county, state, and FBI and other federal agencies on a regular basis.

"He will also be the primary point person of contact on threat assessments and because points of contact personnel are constantly changing, he will be the resource guy to maintain up-to-date contact data," McLaughlin said. "We need to have things like this established and not just do them on the fly when something happens."

According to McLaughlin, designers of the department's new police station on Fifth Street incorporated many safety features — such as barriers in front of the facility — into the layout of the building to deter potential threats.

He said, "We're all probably more alert and aware of potential threats after 9/11."

Travis Pearcy, chief of the Laurel Volunteer Fire Department, agreed and said that in addition to communicating more with other government agencies and jurisdictions, his crews are performing differently since the terrorist attacks.

Percy was a volunteer firefighter for Montgomery County on 9/11, and spent 36 hours fighting the fire at the Pentagon and recovering bodies.

"Since 9/11, we work more as a team, communicate more and perform in a more precise regiment," Pearcy said of Laurel's VFD. "We have to look at everything around us and look twice because a terrorist attack is always on our minds. Everyone is on edge and suspicious."

That mindset is why local officials said city buildings are not as accessible now as they were prior to 9/11. For example, Flemion said that in the past, visitors were allowed to access the Public Works facility through various doors, but because the operation is designated a "critical facility for emergency services," the public can only use the front door these days.

At the Laurel Municipal Center, some residents have criticized the new Plexiglas wall and security door in the building's lobby, where visitors have to be buzzed in and are then escorted to their destinations, but city officials said they installed it for the security of employees and visitors in the building.

Laurel City Spokesman James Collins said he was driving on Van Dusen Road, near Interstate 95, on 9/11 and saw black smoke billowing from the Pentagon in the distance. He remembered wondering if planes flying overhead carried additional terrorists.

He said that, because of 9/11, on several occasions he has made calls on unmarked trucks parked near the Municipal Center's entrance to determine if the bomb squad was needed. Fortunately, the vehicles were legitimate.

"We have to be on the alert and ready because Laurel is not the same Laurel it used to be," Collins said. "Before 9/11, if a package was outside City Hall, you paid no attention to it, but now, we call the bomb squad — which we've done a few times.

Collins said that the bomb squad once told the police to close off B and C streets when someone left a bag on the wall at the old police station.

"It turned out to be an officer's lunch," Collins said. "We can laugh about it now, but you never know. So, you have to be vigilant."

Even though officials nationally and locally continue to be on higher alert after 9/11, Flemion does not think that the city has lost its small-town flavor. However, he does believe people's attitudes are different.

"Laurel is Laurel and will never lose its character in my mind, but I do think we've lost some of our comfort zone," Flemion said. "I'm sorry to say, but the environment we live in now has the potential to be dangerous at the drop of a hat."

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