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Changes are subtle with high alert level

February 24, 2003|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

gregs@herald-mail.com

The most visible change locally since the national code orange terrorism alert two weeks ago might be a new sign on the front door of the Hagerstown Maryland State Police barrack.

Among the other instructional notices - don't bring in a gun if you're not an officer, have all packages checked by an officer, regular fingerprinting hours are Thursday from 9 a.m. to noon - is a new 8 1/2-by-11-inch piece of white loose-leaf paper that reads in capital letters:

"Attention all visitors. As a result of an upgrade in the terrorist threat level to orange status, all visitors to this building are subject to search and criminal history checks."

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The U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued the warning Feb. 7, and a few days later issued warnings to every American to get prepared for chemical and biological attacks, including buying duct tape and shower curtains to ward off chemical and biological attacks.

While Washington County didn't see massive runs on supplies like larger metropolitan areas, local police continue to pay more attention to critical areas like hospitals and water supplies with increased patrols, but little else is changing publicly because of the alert, police said last week.

However, just because there aren't obvious changes, doesn't mean police and emergency officials aren't doing things to prepare against terrorism, they said.

Maryland State Police 1st Sgt. Richard Narron said the new sign at the barrack went up the same week as the national terrorism alert went out. Officers now check vehicles in its parking lot as well, especially on fingerprinting days.

"That's a big day for us" because that's when people who need background checks for work are coming in, Narron said. "We just beef it up a little now."

Patrol officers from the major police agencies have increased patrols to high-profile areas as well.

Narron said additional patrols were going to the airport, "targeted religious facilities," including mosques, and the National Guard armory, while police continue to keep watch over local power plants, water treatment facilities and bridges.

But not everything is going to be made public about what law enforcement agencies are doing.

"We're making special checks ... but we're not going to get into detail about things like that," said Capt. Douglas Mullendore of the Washington County Sheriff's Office.

"We want to keep some of those things confidential," he said.

One state agency is also assisting local police departments across the state. The Maryland Joint Terrorism Task Force pumps out daily briefings, even though the content isn't always relevant to the area.

Those daily briefings come via e-mail from a central office in Baltimore directly to Lt. Richard Johnson, the city police department's liaison to the group. He then hands them to department captains and his boss, Chief Arthur Smith.

While not getting specific about what is in the briefings, Johnson said they're helpful.

"You're gonna see a little bit more information coming across because of the code orange alert," Johnson said. "Sometimes you can get a feel ... there is more increased activity" related to terrorism, but up to now, not much has changed.

"They're asking every officer out there on the street to be more cognizant," Johnson said.

So far, however, this area has not been a target, Smith said.

"None of (the briefings) has ever had any local focus," Smith said. The updates include Associated Press news clips or lookouts for people suspected of being involved in terrorism, he said.

But if any lookout has come through, it has been for people passing through on an interstate highway or stopping at a local hotel, Smith said.

Fire and rescue services also play a role in terrorism alerts, said Washington County Emergency Services Director Joe Kroboth. But little more than memos have circulated among departments, he said.

"Although we're charged with trying to protect the citizens and the public ... we don't want to get to the point where we instill panic," Kroboth said.

And as far as the duct tape and shower curtains are concerned, they could be useful but might not be the best use of resources for area residents, Washington County Sheriff Charles Mades said.

"If they hit Hagerstown, Md., they're pretty hard up," he said.

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