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Orlando, Florida Takes Homeland Security to the Streets - 2002-06-20

While the U.S. federal government is giving top priority to homeland security, local leaders around the country are taking their own steps to protect their citizens from terrorism. For Orlando, Florida mayor Glenda Hood, security has been the number one priority since September 11.

"If a terrorist attack occurs, it happens at the local level, and the local first responders are the ones first on the scene, and the local elected bodies need to have made the decisions and have the protocols in place to deal with that," Ms. Hood said.

That's exactly what she's done, in an aggressive local homeland security effort that federal officials have called a model for the nation. Mayor Hood frequently brings together city, state, and federal officials to discuss, in detail, who would do what if an attack occurred in Orlando. She has also initiated a risk assessment for all public buildings.

"Whether it's City Hall, our arena, our stadium, our neighborhood centers and of course what you find out is that the way a lot of public buildings were designed didn't have as a focus certain security issues," she said.

Visitors to city buildings now must sign in. Some entrances are sealed off and others have posted guards. There's a new evacuation plan for the entire downtown area, and the city has created its own anti-terrorism task force. The 5-person unit, including members of the fire and police departments, will lead the response to any terrorist attack.

District Chief Gerald Lane of the Orlando Fire Department heads the task force's Arson and Bomb Squad. He organized special classes for all the city's first responders. "Our personnel, police, fire and public works, needed to be trained in weapons of mass destruction," he said.

Authorities went through mock disasters involving chemical, biological and explosive threats. They put some of their new skills to use during last fall's anthrax scare. "We had almost 400 suspicious envelope calls within about a 10-day period," Mr. Lane said.

All those calls turned out to be false alarms, and Orlando has not had a terrorist attack. But with hundreds of thousands of tourists in the area visiting theme parks like Disney World, officials know this city could be an especially inviting target.

Orange County Sheriff Kevin Beary says his department has worked with the city and the theme parks to step up security. But he also another concern...the possibility that people living in the Orlando area may have ties to some of the 19 men who hijacked the planes on September 11. "My goodness, 15 of 19 came and recreated right here at Disneyworld," he said. "Do we know they might have some money cells? Absolutely. Do we know that we've got some Al-Qaida activity here? Absolutely." To find possible terrorist cells, the sheriff's department is asking citizens for help. It's revitalizing Neighborhood Watch Programs - and adding a new twist. "When we pull together as a community, we're stronger," Mr. Beary said. "That's why we're here tonight, we're about making ties with each other."

Corporal John Luckett spoke to a group of about 15 people in a conference room at a public library in the Hickory Ridge neighborhood, part of northwest Orlando. They were interested in developing a program for their nearby apartment complex. Corporal Luckett reviews the standard Neighborhood Watch elements - how to protect yourself from burglars, what to do in case of a weather emergency. Then he turns to the new topic.

"The terrorists that took over the planes, destroyed our buildings, killed our fellow citizens, lived and used flight schools in Florida," he said. "Matter of fact, 6 of the 10 flight schools were in Florida. They were here amongst us - traveling on our roads, shopping in our stores."

The officer asks the group to look out for suspicious neighbors - such as people with no obvious means of support. "Now, we are also talking in this particular instance about Middle Eastern males," Mr. Luckett continued, "however, we do need to still be aware of everybody. But notice these things. The more information you gather the more it might help us, or you."

The group listens intently - some take notes. Afterward, 66-year-old Esther Varga, organizer of the Hickory Ridge Neighborhood Watch group, says since September 11 she's wanted to do whatever she can to help protect herself and those around her. "I'm very concerned that terrorists could be living right next door to me and I wouldn't know," she said, "So from now on I'll watch, keep my eyes open. I want to make sure my neighborhood is safe."

The Orange County sheriff's department is organizing more than 500 of these Neighborhood Watch programs. At the same time, the city of Orlando has developed a Homeland Security Class for its community emergency response teams - groups of citizens in various neighborhoods that help neighbors and first responders in case of an emergency.

Bill Jennings heads the team in College Park, a residential area just north of downtown. He wants to learn as much as he can from local officials. "When they're overwhelmed, they could be in so many different areas that they won't be able to get to my house, to my street, to the next block," he said. "This is why it's important to have citizens with an understanding of this."

Something happened in Orlando in May that gave many people a momentary scare. The FBI got information that suggested a possible threat to Orlando's water supply. City and county officials secured the water facilities, tested the water for contamination and quickly let the media know the water was fine.

Orange County sheriff Kevin Beary says the system worked as it should. "It was good solid teamwork, and we didn't have panic and we informed the public. And I think they're looking to local law enforcement as the calming effect," he said.

Still, officials would like to do more. The city is hoping federal money will allow it to hire more personnel for homeland security and pay for a new Urban Search and Rescue Team. The city's already spending $2.5 million on new homeland security efforts, and the county's spending at least another $1.5 million. Just like thousands of communities across the country, the Orlando area's efforts to stay secure and prepared, in the post September 11 environment, are only beginning.