County Sheriff keeps a watchful eye on Hood River homefront

The best defense is a strong offense.

Hood River County Sheriff Joe Wampler took that adage to heart following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the East Coast and began preparing a local safety plan.

And part of that plan is to keep a close eye on both anti-war protests and those in support of the military campaign to be sure that heightened emotions do not erupt into conflict.

“The immediate effect to us is that we need to have a police presence available so that tensions running high don’t get out of control and people remain safe and within the bounds of the law,” Wampler said.

Earlier this week — with the war on Iraq looming and the nation on a high level of alert for possible terrorist activity — Wampler met with other law enforcement officials from across the state in Hood River to nail down details of the Homeland Defense Communications Networks (HDCN).

“The level of threat to our particular cities and county is low, but in the event of an emergency anywhere in the state Hood River will play a big part by providing manpower and a lot of specialized equipment, especially for rural areas,” said Wampler.

The local contribution to a master resource list includes boats, snowmobiles, tractors and planes. In addition, Karl Tesch, Hood River County Emergency Services Coordinator, scored a $73,000 grant through Oregon Emergency Management (OEM) that was split between Hood River, Wasco, Sherman and Gilliam counties to purchase several high-tech encrypted radios, gas masks and chemical protective suits. Wampler said another $89,000 is on its way and will be used for gear that will combat higher levels of chemical and biological threats and a portable decontamination center.

He said all first responders in the county, particularly local fire departments, are being trained in the use of the sophisticated equipment.

“Should there be a chemical, biological or radiological event, the plan is for the new equipment to be used when the first responders come together in one place for a single incident,” Wampler said.

He said the new radios will allow private communications among command staff with multichannel encryption capabilities.

The structure for the HDCN has been under development since Sept. 11 to enhance the state’s internal communications link. Gov. Ted Kulongoski heads Oregon’s Homeland Defense Network and disseminates instructions, information to OEM and the Oregon State Police, who are then tasked with updating local agencies.

Wampler said if the nation is placed under the highest “red” alert for a looming attack, he will increase patrols, cancel days off for deputies as necessary and ask all emergency responders to let him know their whereabouts at all times. Wampler said in place of a direct terrorist attack, Hood River County is more likely to be faced with a secondary emergency situation from a major outage of electrical power or a hazardous material accident on the highway, railway, or waterway.

Hood River Port Director Dave Harlan is seeking to prevent that scenario under his watch and has alerted tollbridge attendants and airport workers to watch for suspicious boat, plane or vehicle traffic and to report all unusual behavior and activities immediately.

“We’ve gotten everyone on a heightened state of awareness and are relying on human eyes at this time to look for anything that seems out of the ordinary,” he said.

Wampler said alert citizens play a key role in Homeland Security and anyone noticing anything that raises suspicions should call the county’s dispatch center at 386-2711.

He said that elements of the local emergency preparedness plan have the added benefit of being useful for natural disasters such as snowstorms, earthquakes, flood and fires. He suggests that residents ready for any situation by following these recommendations from the American Red Cross:

* Develop a family preparedness plan, including care of pets and tending to the needs of the elderly and handicapped.

* Stock enough food and water to be at least three days without power (at least one gallon of water per person per day).

* Keep a portable radio with batteries, a good flashlight and enough fuel for emergency transportation on hand.

* Identify a “safe” room in the center of the house to move into if a chemical or biological event occurs in the area. If that happens, all windows and doors should be shut and fans turned off.

For more information, Wampler said local citizens can access several websites to learn more about homeland defense and emergency preparedness. These include the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, www.ready.gov, American Red Cross, www.redcross.org, Oregon State Police, www.osp.state. or.us/oem/.

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