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Attacks led to changes for police officers, firefighters

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Posted: Friday, September 9, 2011 6:15 pm | Updated: 11:34 am, Sat Sep 17, 2011.

Emergency workers know dealing with disaster is part of their job. But exactly what that disaster will be is not so certain. For San Joaquin County, possibilities include fire, flood, nuclear contamination, earthquake and terrorist attack.

And while Sept. 11, 2001 forever changed the way rescue agencies communicate with each other and respond to calls, the day is part of a process officials in San Joaquin County have been streamlining for decades.

“Call it lucky or unlucky, but we are so disaster-prone in this area that we have always been having to plan our responses,” said Michael Cockrell, director of emergency operations for San Joaquin County.

Natural and manmade disasters have always been a part of life in the Central Valley. When the nuclear plant Rancho Seco was operational, fears about meltdowns prompted contingency plans for radiation containment and disposal.

Ten-inch underground steel pipelines carry jet fuel through Stockton, Acampo and Lodi. While they are regularly inspected, an explosion could take place as easily as a construction crew digging without inspecting the area first. Reservoirs surround Lodi, and floods remain a potential threat.

The county can’t become complacent, Cockrell said. The state itself has always stressed communication between emergency agencies, he said.

“California was already a pioneer when it came to organizing the command process, and that’s what we saw was a big issue during the 9/11 attack, that crews couldn’t coordinate with each other and had no good process for dispersing victims,” Cockrell said. “Police would have its plan, and fire and medical and public works would each have their own plans — instead of working together.”

Because maintaining communication in a time of crisis is crucial, former Lodi police chief David Main helped ensure the department’s building was designed to cope with a major emergency. Main sat on the design team that constructed the headquarters.

“We wanted the department’s community room to double as an operations center in the case of an emergency,” Main said. “There are work stations set up in there and outlets and phone lines for computers and phones to make communication easier.”

The San Joaquin Sheriff’s Department has made its process for tracking suspicious behavior more efficient since that fateful Tuesday in September 10 years ago.

Besides offering more training, the department also uses liaison officers to widen its influence in the search for potential terror plots, said Deputy Dave B. Konecny. A specialized code given to track potential terrorist activities also helps the department quickly communicate with other police agencies or federal officials, he said.

The role of the liaison officers also varies, he said. Some are more focused on response issues, while others center their attention on detection and deterrence of terrorism, he said.

To keep its general plan sharp, the county’s Office of Emergency Services updates its emergency plan every three years. The plan outlines minimizing damage, planning, training and recovery for a variety of scenarios.

The plans can be large, such as developing a location where people can gather in the event of a large-scale evacuation. Or they can be small, like making sure the fittings on all the fire hydrants are the same so emergency crews and public works employees can access them easily.

The county office also aggressively pursues grants from the Office of Homeland Security and other federal agencies, Cockrell said.

One of the grants obtained by the county enabled it to purchase two large-scale decontamination showers. They are housed in Woodbridge and Escalon and are for a dirty bomb or chemical attack, said Cpt. Mike Jennings of the Woodbridge Fire Department.

“Each tent can serve about 1,400 people an hour,” he said. “We’ve only used them in training, if we were to use it in a crisis we’d have to send it out to OES for replacement or cleaning.”

The showers are enclosed in an inflatable tent  about 20 yards long. The pathway in the middle is open to clean victims who have been immobilized, Jennings said. The contaminated water is pumped into an inflatable bladder outside the tent for collection and eventual discharge.

Cockrell estimates the county has received millions of dollars in grant money to purchase radios, HAZMAT kits, enhanced laboratory equipment and mobile radio stations. Campuses in the Lodi Unified School District embraced the model of schools in Stockton and schools now feature radios and emergency kits to help students and faculty in the case of an emergency, he said.

However, Cockrell and others know their efforts are meant to be used. A catastrophe is coming, and it’s their job to help minimize its damage.

“A simple truth is that we’re always running against time before the next disaster hits,” he said.

Contact reporter Jordan Guinn at jordang@lodinews.com.

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