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Pa. terrorism task force remains active

March 29, 2006|by JENNIFER FITCH

WAYNESBORO, Pa. - Officials from an eight-county terrorism task force continue to add more members from Franklin County to their ranks to enhance preparedness for situations they hope never arise.

Formed in 1998 under the auspice of the state Office of Homeland Security, the task force now includes fire department members, law enforcement officials, hazmat specialists, emergency medical technicians, hospital employees and businesspeople, officials said.

The entire South Central Terrorism Task Force could be activated during an emergency, or a specialized strike team could be sent to assist elsewhere.

Those emergencies aren't just related to terrorist attacks, said Gary Himes, the acting Franklin County coordinator.

"Part of the task force could be activated for major hurricanes or tornadoes," Himes said.

The idea of the task force is to provide support to other counties, while knowing Franklin County can rely on return support if it had an emergency.

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"One single county's resources are taxed," Himes said. "It's (designed) to pull in the extra resources."

The supports are in place through mutual aid agreements.

"We'd go in and assist in directing traffic, that sort of thing," said Preston Strayer, chief deputy of the Franklin County Sheriff's Department.

The region's task force has never fully been activated, although several representatives of Franklin County responded to the Flight 93 crash in Somerset, Pa., on Sept. 11, 2001.

Assumptions taken into consideration as the state's nine task forces were formed included that "significant state response will take at least four hours" and "significant federal response will take at least eight hours," according to the Pennsylvania Office of Homeland Security's Web site.

Once a year, the South Central Terrorism Task Force conducts a full-scale exercise "when you actually have the players play the parts," Himes said.

For instance, this could mean shutting off a mall for a biohazard drill.

The task force also participates in what Himes called "tabletop" exercises, where the scenarios are played out on paper. Each of the monthly meetings can stretch eight hours.

Himes said law enforcement agencies have been more heavily involved in the task force recently.

Washington Township (Pa.) Police Chief Barry Keller said his department chose to participate because, collectively, the agencies can better deal with the situations.

The task force "allows you to bring in assistance," he said.

Franklin County participates in the task force with Adams, Cumberland, Dauphin, Lancaster, Perry, Lebanon and York counties. All of Pennsylvania's 67 counties have been divided into regional task forces.

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