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Counties brace for potential of attack at home



Published: Thu, March 20, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



Trumbull commissioners hope to bring back laid-off safety workers.

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Local governments in the Mahoning and Shenango valleys have heightened their vigilance at public facilities.

War with Iraq already has caused Mahoning County officials to tighten up security at its buildings. Should intensified warfare begin, security would be tightened even further, and some buildings could be closed.

"We're talking about public facilities, where people come and go every day," said county Administrator Gary Kubic. "We are an open government, and we have to be concerned about the safety of the public and our employees."

Terrorism alert scale

Kubic said if the national security level rises to red, which is the highest level of alert, procedures already are in place for government buildings.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency set the terrorism alert level to orange -- one level below red, the highest alert. Orange means there is a high risk of terrorist attacks.

Kubic said the red level will trigger a team of designated officials to immediately assess the situation and decide what steps must be taken to increase security. If necessary, that could include shutting down some buildings until it's deemed safe to reopen them.

"We have to be more aware of our surroundings. We have to think smarter right now," Kubic said.

Walter Duzzny, director of the Mahoning County Emergency Management Agency, said he has given recommendations to the state for which local facilities should be deemed critical. There's "a move afoot," he said, to deploy Ohio National Guard troops to some of the locations, which he declined to name.

Bringing patrols back

Trumbull County commissioners have no special plans to respond to any increased terrorist threat. After deep layoffs to the sheriff's department and the 911 dispatch center over the past several weeks, Commissioner Joseph J. Angelo Jr. said they hope to bring back laid-off employees, not only because of the possibility of terrorism, but also to patrol the streets.

Commissioners recalled two laid-off 911 dispatchers Wednesday. The county's 911 director, Tim Gladis, has requested an additional $60,000 to bring back two more, in part because of worries that public jitters could result in increased call volume. With layoffs, the center is down six full-time and two part-time dispatchers.

Limiting access

In Columbiana County, commissioners have ordered that a back entrance to the courthouse be closed to the public, and sheriff's deputies have increased patrols in certain areas.

Patrols have been increased near the county airport and at water supplies such as towers, said Lt. Allen Haueter of the sheriff's department.

The sheriff's office also is asking the public to be aware of anything that appears to be out of the ordinary and to report it to authorities, Haueter added.

Mercer County commissioners have decided to immediately reduce access to the courthouse in Mercer. There had been an open-door policy; anyone could enter the building through any of four doors. Now, the east and west entrances will be locked to allow for exiting only, said Bill Boyle, director of administrative services. The north entrance to the first floor and the south entrance to the basement level will remain open for public use without any security screening.

After-hours access will be severely curtailed and limited to county employees only. Previously, attorneys and people doing property title and other research could get into the building after the 4:30 p.m. closing hour.

The courthouse is in the midst of a major renovation project, and workers are in the building until 11 p.m. They will no longer be able to leave the building to get tools or materials after 4:30 p.m. unless they have another worker waiting by the door to let them back in, Boyle said.

The renovation calls for installing security cameras at various locations and a security podium in the first-floor lobby. Boyle said the camera system could be installed and operational within about 30 days.

James Thompson, director of Mercer County's department of public safety, said the 911 center hasn't taken any special precautions other than to "dust off" its emergency preparedness plans and to remind its people and public-safety officials to be vigilant to anything unusual.

Still preparing

In Lawrence County, contingency plans are in place, but there's more to do to prepare for a natural disaster or terrorist attack involving the county courthouse, commissioners said. Local EMA officials are also conducting drills this week in preparation for natural disasters such as tornados or floods. Both activities prompted discussion about the county's capability to handle emergencies.

Commissioners said that by law, there are plans in place for the controller, chief clerk and other county employees to act on behalf of commissioners in the event two or all three were killed. Commissioner Roger DeCarbo said the law is in place not only because of possible terrorism threats, but also in case of other situations, such as two or more commissioners' dying in an automobile crash.

DeCarbo said more of a concern to commissioners is improving the process of storing county records on microfilm and having copies stored somewhere other than the courthouse. DeCarbo said severe damage or destruction of the courthouse either by natural means or a terrorist act would be a true disaster.

Such an act would disrupt county operations because although recording files on microfilm is an ongoing process, it takes place at the courthouse.




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