Weather Updates

Homeland security funding put to practical use in region

Chief RebeccPolzsteps onU.S. Coast Guard motor life boday heavy-weather training outside U.S Coast Guard statiMichigan City Wednesday Sept. 7 2011.

Chief Rebecca Polzin steps onto a U.S. Coast Guard motor life boat and a day of heavy-weather training outside the U.S, Coast Guard station Michigan City Wednesday Sept. 7, 2011. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 the station took on the important mission of regular security patrols of the critical infrastructure along the Indiana and Michigan lakeshore, including potential targets such as the Michigan City Generating Plant in the background. | Andy Lavalley~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: May 9, 2012 9:47AM

Ten years after 9/11, the federal government has doled out more than $32 billion to states for anti-terrorism grants.

Local officials say that planning and training for disasters has helped communication and decision-making even in common emergency situations.

Indiana has received $256 million in federal grants since 2002, with about $5.4 million directed toward District 1, which includes Lake, Porter, LaPorte, Jasper and Newton counties.

Local agencies have purchased items such as emergency sirens in Valparaiso, protective suits in Hammond, laptops for police cruisers in Merrillville, and security cameras for the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District.

But the big purchases have benefited the five-county District 1 as a whole.

John Bryan, the District 1 coordinator for Indiana’s Department of Homeland Security, said that sharing resources makes sense on a fiscal basis.

“There are 10 districts statewide to make sure that assets are better shared, because not every city needs a mobile command center,” Bryan said.

Porter County Emergency Management Director Phil Griffith said the $600,000 mobile command center and $250,000 mass casualty trailer are available to any community in the district.

“We’ve geared all of our stuff to be useful not only in terrorist attacks but also in tornadoes, chemical spills, train derailments, and stuff that we would really experience,” Griffith said. “Because when you think about it, a terrorist attack is a HazMat situation with an attitude.”

Griffith said that the August 2009 tornado in Chesterton is the only disaster in which the mobile command center was utilized, but the district conducts training on the center and representatives give communities a glance at local festivals.

About 120 district personnel took part in an earthquake simulation exercise near Seymour, Ind., in May. Recent simulation exercises include an active shooter situation that involved Dyer Police and Franciscan St. Margaret Health in Dyer, and a fire drill at Ameristar Casino in East Chicago.

The mobile command center is equipped with radios, computers, expandable side panels and even its own weather station to ease communication with local and state officials, while the mass casualty trailer can handle up to 200 live injuries and 100 fatalities at a time. Training experiences help district officials tweak the assets to make them better.

“We had just put the mobile command center in service six months prior to the tornado,” Griffith said. “Training revealed that we could talk to everybody but the U.S. Coast Guard, so we needed a marine radio. Then we found that we couldn’t talk to the airports so we got an aviation radio.”

U.S. Coast Guard’s
mission has changed

The U.S. Coast Guard gets their funding directly from the DHS, but their experience shows how duties have changed since 9/11. The U.S. Coast Guard station in Michigan City used to only occasionally focus on security at the Ports of Indiana, but now it’s part of their regular routine, said officer-in-charge Rebecca Polzin. Even though the Coast Guard is a branch of the military, it was housed inside the Department of Transportation prior to 9/11, and now it is under the Department of Homeland Security.

“Our mission changed throughout the Coast Guard,” Polzin said. “We had more security patrols, making sure that the ports are secure in Michigan City, Burns Harbor, and New Buffalo (Mich.). Before 9/11 we still patrolled, but it wasn’t our main mission.”

The terrorist attacks on 9/11 haven’t changed the work of first responders; it’s just placed their work in a larger context.

“9/11 was an eye-opening experience for everybody, but policing doesn’t necessarily have to change,” said Hammond Police Lt. Richard Hoyda. “We do focus on the community sharing information with us and officers looking for suspicious situations.”

The district has a number of committees that meet regularly to discuss training exercises or possible purchases.

Initially, the state doled out money directly to local agencies, but that sometimes led to purchases that didn’t exactly have anything to do with anti-terrorism efforts, Griffith said.

“It was mismanaged in some areas, such as an agency buying a new door for a police station,” Griffith said. “So the state said hold on, we need to make sure you’ve submitted things really needed. It took one year, and municipalities had to front money, so that slowed spending down real fast.”

Since equipment is housed throughout the district, communication and cooperation is key, Griffith said. He said that the region was already in a good place with communication, since it started mutual aid agreements before the state did.

It’s not just government agencies involved in the training, either. Porter County Health Department Emergency Preparedness coordinator Eric Kurtz said that the district has been including private companies — such as electric and gas utilities, manufacturing and other critical industries — in its training exercises.

“We have critical infrastructure located in Northwest Indiana,” Kurtz said. “The BP refinery could be a potential target that would have a huge impact on the economy, locally and across the Midwest.”

Superior Ambulance Operations Manager Tom Bettenhausen, who is on the district’s mass casualty team, said that nurses and doctors from local hospitals have participated in training exercises as well.

“I’ve attended hospital meetings about their emergency preparedness and they’ve helped us out in turn,” Bettenhausen said. “They’ve donated funds for lights in the trailer.”

Bryan said regardless of agency labels, personnel at drills work together pretty seamlessly.

“Our emphasis is let’s get them to the table,” Bryan said.

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