Saturday, September 11, 2004

Solano now better prepared for a disaster

By Ian Thompson

FAIRFIELD -- Four years ago, a phone call to Fairfield police about a guy with binoculars near a city reservoir probably would simply have been passed off as a bird watcher.

"We now send an officer out to check it out," said Fairfield Police Chief Bill Gresham.

Whether Solano County is any safer than it was three years ago in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks is not a question local public safety officials can definitively answer.

"Yes and no," Solano County Undersheriff Rick Fuller said. "Yes, we are more aware of the opportunities out there for terrorists to strike us."

Solano County has a healthy list of possible targets for terrorist attacks, ranging from gas pipelines to Interstate 80 overpasses.

Police keep a closer eye on these, particularly if information about a possible terrorist threat is sent down from the federal government.

They say the county's public safety agencies are more aware of what they are up against and they are more prepared to deal with such a horror if it comes here.

"We are better trained and better prepared," Emergency Service Manager Bob Powell said.

Solano County now has a mobile field force made up of about 60 police officers, picked from the county's different departments, who can be called to deal with any terrorist event.

"We have been together for a year now and can go anywhere to respond to an emergency," Fairfield Police Lt. Paul Bockrath said.

The mobile field force is one example of departments pooling their resources to deal with potential incidents, which Bockrath said no one agency can handle on its own.

Bockrath is also part of the County Terrorism Working Group, which put on several countywide exercises to test Solano's ability to handle large casualty disasters and work out what can be improved.

"This group puts everyone on the same page," Fairfield Division Chief Vince Webster said.

The county is also very close to finally fielding the Solano County Hazardous Materials Team, comprised of public safety personnel from throughout the county who can deal with chemical or biological threats.

"Three years ago, we weren't talking about the hazmat team," Fairfield Fire Chief Mike Smith said.

His department spent the last three years improving its ability to deal with such a disaster with more training and improved equipment as well as working closer with other agencies.

For example, five of Smith's firefighters are part of a county hazardous materials response team.

"We can use them both locally and countywide," Smith said.

The department's fire engines have been uniformly equipped with decontamination equipment, something not done before Sept. 11, according to Webster.

Recent large-scale exercises paid for with federal dollars allowed the county to spot the shortcomings and change its methods.

"The areas we learned lessons in were different from where we expected them to be," Powell said.

For example, firefighters, police and emergency medical personnel each were operating under different procedures on how to deal with an incident. Also, more than one command center was set up, each expecting to call the shots. Both problems are being dealt with.

Solano County collected almost $3 million in grants since Sept. 11, 2001, to better equip itself to deal with terrorism with more funds expected in the future.

The latest came in the form of a new $442,464 mobile command vehicle that was unveiled earlier this summer and will be used by fire and police commanders across the county in emergencies.

The money also helped pay for several large-scale training exercises and paid for equipment ranging from radios and gas masks to protective suits and bullet-resistant helmets.

Solano County is now aiming at getting another large vehicle this fall that will be designed as a mobile hazardous materials laboratory and is expected to cost about $350,000.

"We are now talking to other agencies," Fairfield Police Chief Bill Gresham said.

That ranges from the ongoing effort to purchase communications equipment that will allow all the agencies to talk to each other to working closer with federal agencies such as the FBI, "sharing information up and down the chain on a daily basis," according to Gresham.

Prior to Sept. 11, local agencies and the federal government "were on different pages" when it came to communicating, according to Fuller.

When it comes to working with other fire fighting agencies, the long-standing network of mutual aid agreements created to assist each other battling wildfires gives this area a slight advantage.

"The wildfire threat has caused us to learn how to deal large incidents," Smith said.

Once the training, coordinating and equipping of the county's first responders is in hand, the next goal is to reach out into the community to the general public and groups such as Neighborhood Watch.

"Our next move is to get the average citizen to do more," Powell said, which includes making better preparations for how to deal with disasters, whether they are a terrorist attack or an earthquake.

Powell said the public has already been helpful, being more aware and willing to call in suspicious activity.

"It is the responsibility of every adult to take ownership in this," Fuller said.

Reach Ian Thompson at 427-6976 or at

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