By STEVEN NALLEY
There was a time, Starkville Police Department Lieutenant Mark Ballard said, when the SPD typically trained for hypothetical scenarios alone.
“Before the attacks, our mindset was mainly for narcotic search warrants,” Ballard said. “After the 9/11 attacks, our team added the dimension of anti-terrorist role.”
Now, as part of a regional response team with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, SPD trains together with several other police departments for larger-scale exercises, Ballard said. They can be as large as simulated hostage situations in empty factories encompassing local fire departments and ambulances.
It’s just one of several changes Starkville’s public safety officers have seen in the years since 9/11, changes which have made Starkville safer from terrorist attack.
SPD Chief David Lindley said everyone at the station was watching when the second plane hit the towers and when a third plane hit the Pentagon. At that point, he said, officers’ concern about further potential attacks grew enough to call in additional officers, activating a full shift and keeping two shifts in place for 48 hours.
“We received a number of unusual requests,” Lindley said. “The National Guard Armory, the Army Reserve Center and the (Islamic Center of Mississippi on Herbert Street) all asked us if we would come and post officers to make sure they were safe, which we did.”
Starkville Fire Chief Rodger Mann said local firefighters were also on high alert. Many of them expressed desire to travel to New York City and Washington D.C. to assist their fellow firefighters several states away, but none were able to go.
“That was the case with a lot of departments,” Mann said. “There ended up being too many respondents at one point.”
One of the most immediate changes at SFD after 9/11, Mann said, was training to handle biological terrorism.
“We were already training in hazmat before, but we were training for everyday chemicals,” Mann said. “There was always the threat of anthrax, but 9/11 brought that back around. We got a truck full of stuff, from absorbent pads to chemical suits to monitoring equipment.”
Grants for fire departments to upgrade their equipment have become more readily available in the years since 9/11, Mann said. SFD has received some of those grants, he said, gaining several disaster relief tools.
For example, Mann said, SFD gained more confined space suits, so named because they have oxygen tanks and masks, allowing firefighters to breathe in enclosed burning spaces where smoke builds. He said SFD also has additional shoring materials, used to shore up fallen walls and rescue trapped disaster victims.
Lindley said the police department has also seen equipment upgrades since 9/11.
“Kevlar helmets, ballistic shields, shoulder weapons — all of these gave us the capability to handle a more serious threat,” Lindley said. “Equipment we acquired at that time should serve us in good stead for years to come.”
Lindley said the Department of Homeland Security has also issued SPD a new Chevy Tahoe SUV recently. The most important upgrade, Lindley said, police departments have received is increased communication between public safety officials at the federal and local levels.
“The federal government started anti-terrorism task forces, and local forces were invited to participate,” Lindley said. “New websites were developed. The National Incident Management System was adopted by all public safety agencies. Nobody had the networks that are in existence now.
The one problem for SPD in the wake of 9/11, Lindley said, was the number of police officers who also serve in the military. Lindley said the military is a common second job for police officers, with a fluctuating 15 percent of SPD officers in the military.
“The most significant, direct impact of 9/11 on SPD was the number of soldiers we’ve had serve in the war against terror,” Lindley said. “In many cases, we’ve had three or four officers gone at a time to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan. We never had them gone for over two weeks at a time for summer camp, so when we had people gone for a year at a time, it was a challenge.”
Officers returning from military service also have to go through a reorientation process, Lindley said, with fellow police riding with them on patrol to ensure they are re-acclimating well. Once soldiers do re-acclimate, he said, they make up for their past absence with new experience, preparing the SPD better for domestic terrorist attacks.
“I believe we’re more ready,” Lindley said. “Our equipment is better; our training is better. My goodness, we’ve got combat veterans on the force. I believe we’re much better prepared now than we were.”