Homeland security officials encourage vigilance, 'step up' precautions for larger events

tstevens@ledger-enquirer.comApril 16, 2013 

Just four months before the Boston Marathon, former Columbus Homeland Security Director Bobby Dutton was teaching medical professionals in Boston how to prepare for explosives during emergencies.

Dutton and his wife stayed in a hotel near where two bombs detonated Monday on Boylston Street. In addition to Battalion Chief at the Columbus Fire Department, Dutton is an instructor that provides emergency preparedness training through Homeland Security and the National Domestic Preparedness Consortium.

He watched Monday afternoon as Boston officials put some of those plans in action. Two bombs went off near the finish line at the Boston Marathon, killing three and injuring more than 170 people.

"If you've ever been there, you know Boston is a beautiful city," he said. "We vacationed and stayed right there in that hotel, and walked all over that place. The attitude of 'It's not going to happen to me,' or 'I'm not going to be a target' -- we might as well throw that out the window."

Though he hasn't been able to confirm the status of all of his contacts in Boston, he said the reports he's received indicate Boston handled the bombings well.

"I sat there and took notes all day, and everything being reported was just like 'We taught that, and we taught that,'" he said. "I was listening to a doctor explain the glass injuries from the explosions, and he said 'The training paid off.' And that made me feel good."

Dutton said when it comes to preparing for events like Monday's, he worries not for larger communities like Boston, but for smaller communities that may not have the time or manpower to devote to training.

"A lot of times we don't gear up for stuff before it happens," he said. "But communities have to be vigilant. Nobody wants to carry out an attack like that if they think people are watching them."

In Columbus, allied agencies and constant training are the city's biggest assets, Homeland Security Director Brad Hicks said. Columbus boasts ties to local, state and federal agencies, as well as strong connections with nearby communities.

Hicks commands a team of seven bomb technicians and three bomb-sniffing dogs. The events in Boston haven't spurred local agencies to create more security, but they have served as a reminder.

"One of the biggest things is regardless of how complacent our community, with my guys or any of the police departments, our threat level is always up because we know terrorism can happen at any time," Hicks said.

Hicks said he expects the next two weeks to be particularly busy. There are several larger events that Hicks is looking to improve security by using knowledge gleaned out of the events in Boston.

"Any event that was held prior to Boston, we were there, constantly in the shadows," he said. "We were working through the event organizers prior to the event, sweeping for bombs and looking for unusual activity. We're constantly doing that prior to the events, but we're going to step it up."

Hicks said his team will also be looking at "soft sites" -- areas where local efforts at terrorism prevention are predicted to be less effective -- as well as continuing to stay in touch with the local, state and federal agencies Columbus has built a relationship with over the years.

Both Dutton and Hicks said that while efforts at security can be buffered, prevention of events like Monday's starts not only with law enforcement vigilance but with citizens taking better notice of their surroundings.

Dutton said people should not panic, but look out for suspicious behavior in others, rather than looking at characteristics such as race or nationality.

"I'm not talking about racial profiling. I'm talking about behavioral," he said. "Businesses being like 'Why is this person coming in and buying all these things that can be used to make explosives?' or 'Why do people come in and out of these houses at all hours?' and 'Why do I smell chemicals coming from that house?'"

At Fort Benning, motorists may not notice anything different while entering the post, but people always are encouraged to be aware of their surroundings, said Elsie Jackson, a post public affairs spokeswoman.

"If they see anyone or anything suspicious, they are to report it to authorities," Jackson said. "You won't see anything different at the gate. We are always vigilant."

All vehicles are required to stop at checkpoints on post and occupants must show photo identification if you are 17 years or older. "You may or may not be subjected to a random spot check on your car, but that is not anything different as far as the casual observer," she said.

Hicks said it's not just important for citizens to look out for suspicious behavior, but to pay attention to their surroundings and the emotions of those around them.

"As Americans we get wrapped up in ourselves and Facebook and what's going on with us," he said. "If you're more alert, more aware of your surroundings, it's pretty much hardening yourself, hardening yourself as a target."

-- Staff writer Ben Wright contributed to this report.

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