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‘Homeland security begins with hometown security’

Posted: April 25, 2013 4:41 p.m.
Updated: April 26, 2013 5:00 a.m.

 

Following the April 15 Boston Marathon bombing, local emergency officials, including those in Camden, met to discuss the need for security right here at home. Camden Fire Department Chief John Bowers briefed Camden City Council during its Tuesday afternoon work session about keeping the public safe in Camden.

“I think there are things to be said and certain things that don’t need to be said about security and about things that are in place or, likewise, things that might not be in place,” Bowers said, explaining why he might speak in generalities during some of his report.

He said there was little he could share about the situation in Boston that council likely didn’t already know, but that it provided an opportunity to focus on what can be done in small cities such as Camden. Bowers also said that, due to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a lot of emergency preparedness items were put into place. Among those were the creation of task forces in communities across the country that, typically, include municipal fire and police chiefs, county sheriffs and fire marshals, and EMS directors. When they meet, they do so to discuss risks and assess threats in the area, he said. Bowers also said that after 2001, federal funds were made available -- funneled through the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) -- to pay for resources on the local level.

Bowers said the “Committee of Five,” as he named the local task force of which he is a member, met April 17, two days after the Boston bombing.

“It was a very productive meeting … and a lot of good information came out of that meeting. The result of that is that I, in turn, came back and briefed the necessary city staff about the things we need to be doing here at the city, rehash the things we already know and driving the point home, again, of safety and security,” Bowers said.

No. 1 on his list of items was maintaining security at Camden City Hall.

“Because it’s the center of government for the city, we need to make sure that we do what we can to provide protection for this facility,” Bowers said. “My staff, because we’re the only ones that are in this building 24 hours a day, at the end of each business day, my staff performs a security check around the entire facility, checking all the doors and windows, just looking for anything that’s abnormal … such as packages or anything that’s out of place, any breaches, if anybody’s tried to get in, those types of things.”

Bowers said it would be unusual for someone to try to “breach” city hall during the day since it is already open. He said he also spoke with the city’s switchboard operator to be aware of anyone asking “too many questions or asking things that are a little suspicious” and take down that person’s phone number for law enforcement.

In addition, Bowers said he has reviewed procedures at the wastewater treatment plant, water plant and electric substations.

“We also talked about mail handling procedures because, ironically, during the same period of time there (were) some more substances handled through the U.S. Post Office, so we’re always on guard for that,” he said, referring to items containing ricin sent to members of Congress and the White House.

Bowers said firefighters and police officers responding to calls should be aware of what they see when they arrive. He said the same of officers conducting traffic stops.

“We also talked about public events. I don’t want to get into talking about specific events or anything by name, but we have a significant number of public events. We talked about security both before those events and during those events and what we need to do, within reason -- within our resources, try to ensure that our citizens and those who might visit this town are as safe as they can be,” Bowers said.

He said the task force spoke to an information division within SLED and learned that there is no known terrorist threat to South Carolina’s infrastructure or citizens, nor are there any state ties to the Boston bombing. However, Bowers said law enforcement always has to be aware of homegrown threats or copycats.

“I want to make sure that we don’t come across as laying down any challenges. We’re out there trying to do what we need to do, but we by no means are saying we’re safe and everything’s great -- we’re diligent is what we are. We’re trying to put things in place to give us the best odds of being able to react to something that might happen,” he said.

Bowers next mentioned the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign, launched in 2010.

“People that are in law enforcement will tell you they are very handicapped with what they can do if they don’t have public involvement. That’s usually the key,” he said and read excerpts from the campaign’s literature, including the suggestion that “‘Homeland security begins with hometown security. If you see something suspicious taking place, then report that behavior or activity to local law enforcement or in the case of an emergency, call 911. Factors such as race, ethnicity, national origin or religious affiliation alone are not suspicious. For that reason, the public should report only suspicious behavior and situations’ for example ‘an unattended backpack in a public place or someone trying to break in to a restricted area rather than beliefs, thoughts, ideas, expressions, associations or speech unrelated to terrorism or other criminal activity. Only reports that document behavior reasonably indicative of criminal activity related to terrorism’ should be reported.”

Councilman Walter Long recalled an incident in December in upstate New York where a man ambushed and shot at firefighters responding to a fire he had set, killing two of them. Long asked Bowers if firefighters receive any training for such situations.

Bowers indicated there really was not and recalled a time when a colleague who responded to an EMS call was shot.

Councilman Willard Polk said he believed there was a mass evacuation exercise involving C-17s recently and area hospitals. Polk said he would like to see Camden and Kershaw County first responders involved in actual training exercises to learn how to deal with all types of potential threats, including natural and hazardous materials disasters.

Later Tuesday, during that evening’s regular council meeting, council unanimously declared May 12-18 Police Week in Camden. Mayor Tony Scully not only read the proclamation but a special message to Camden Police Department Records Administrator Gayle Pitts. Pitts, whose first husband, S.C. State Highway Patrol Trooper Hardy Merl Godbold, died in the line of duty, was on hand for the proclamation.

“I want to thank all the members of the Camden Police Department for the services they provide to this community on a daily basis,” Scully said. “I want to particularly recognize you, Gayle Pitts, a member of the Camden Police Department who lost her husband in the line of duty. Gayle’s husband … was killed on February 28, 1992 by a drunk driver. Merl joined the S.C. Highway Patrol in November of 1987, assigned to Camden; he dedicated his life to our community.

“Gayle Pitts has served the Camden Police Department proudly since 1998 when they hired her as the department’s victims advocate, later becoming records administrator. Since then, she and her daughters started the Memorial Motorcycle Ride in memory of their father and husband. The Camden Police Department  and its officers have helped sponsor this event since its inception and have awarded four scholarships to seniors in Kershaw County.

“National Law Enforcement Week is of great importance to Gayle and her family. They have been active participants since 1993 when they first traveled to Washington, D.C., to trace the name Hardy Merl Godbold on the National Police Memorial Wall,” Scully concluded.

Other items during the regular meeting included:

• a public hearing on the city’s proposed Fiscal Year 2014 budget -- no one spoke;

• first reading of an ordinance, passed unanimously, to add Chapter 122 to the city code of ordinances regarding outdoor cafés -- if passed on second reading, the chapter would allow outdoor cafés on sidewalks 10 feet or more in width;

• first reading of an ordinance, passed unanimously, to authorize the receipt of six easements on Haigler Lane to facilitate improvements and beautification of public parking in the area -- during the work session, Economic Development Director Wade Luther provided an update on the South Rutledge Street Parking Lot project;

• a unanimous resolution authorizing the consumption of wine and beer during A Taste of Camden on the Town Green from 6 to 10 p.m. May 18; and

• the unanimous award of a bid to Palmetto Corporation of Conway for $120,420 for various street paving projects.

In other business during the afternoon’s work session, council discussed:

• A request from U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney to use Camden City Hall for a “town hall meeting” from 6 to 8 p.m. May 13.

• City Manager Mel Pearson said staff is recommending that the maximum city match for façade improvements be increased from the current $2,500 per grant to $15,000 per building, based on $75 per lineal foot. Façades may be on the front, side or back of a building. The $15,000 maximum would be allowed over a five-year period from the date the grant is first awarded. Pearson said the objective is not just to raise the limit of the city’s match, but to accommodate a larger variety of building sizes. He also noted, however, that the budget only allocates a total of $30,000 toward the façade grant program but that if plans change, the city may want to fund more grants. By consensus, council gave Pearson the go-ahead to expand the program.

• Public Works Deputy Director Sam Davis noted that residents dealt with a long period of taste and odor problems with water produced by the plant in the fall of 2012. Davis said the problem was caused by a blue-green algae bloom in Lake Wateree and was treated with an increased dose of powdered activated carbon. Since then, he said, the city, Lugoff-Elgin Wateree Authority, engineering firm URS and Duke Energy have been working on better identifying methods to prevent such growth and address taste and odor situations.

• Urban Forester Liz Gilland reported on a proposal by the Camden Garden Club to provide planted hanging baskets to be placed on eight light poles along Broad Street between DeKalb and Rutledge streets. If successful, the program would expand to other blocks. Mayor Scully indicated he had heard the group would be interesting in partnering with other garden clubs to assist with a proposed pocket park where the old Maxway building is located at the corner of Broad and Rutledge streets. Council appeared to agree with the basket plan; Pearson said a resolution would be drafted for an upcoming regular meeting.

• Pearson reported that his assistant, Caitlin Corbett, discovered that, the city could cover the entire cost -- rather than only 50 percent -- of any bench in the Leaders Legacy program, if council chose to do so. Five benches have already been appropriated. They will honor former mayors Austin Sheheen Jr., James L. Anderson and Philip S. Minges Jr.; Ruby Minton; and Dr. Paul Joseph Sr. The mayors benches will be placed together on the Laurens Street side of the Camden Archives and Museum; the other two benches are to be placed in the northeast quadrant of Monument Square.

• Luther reported on work he and public relations consultant Ashley Hunter have performed at the S.C. State House in an effort to procure grants for a water “loop” near the county’s Steeplechase Industrial Park. The project is estimated at $1 million. Luther is hoping to defer at least some of the cost through grants from the state, but that doing so is contingent on different pieces of legislation and/or assistance from the State Senate Finance Committee.

•Councilwoman Alfred Mae Drakeford reported that Wesley Chapel United Methodist Church is withdrawing its petition annexation due to various financial factors, including the cost of tying into the city’s utilities by having to go under Black River Road.

• Scully noted that the KershawHealth Centennial exhibit at the archives was scheduled for Wednesday and that the Centennial Ball is Saturday. Polk expressed his opinion that Camden and Kershaw County have been fortunate to have the hospital as a long-standing institution.

• Long asked Gilland about a comprehensive tree plan and how to deal with trees that are blocking business signage. Polk said he wanted to know what other cities, such as Aiken and Sumter, have done to mitigate the problem. Gilland said some items might need to wait to be addressed until after the proposed Broad Street road diet. Long said the city might not want to wait until then to deal with the problem.

 

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