Home field advantage

     During the past five years, the population in St. Lucie County, Florida increased by 25 percent. This recent surge has prompted law enforcement officials to revisit the complexities of homeland security issues by adopting a "hometown security" concept to combine emerging technology with state-of-the-art training for a safer and more secure community.

     St. Lucie County, including the cities of Port St. Lucie and Fort Pierce, is aptly named Treasure Coast for the tons of gold and silver strewn in the Atlantic coastal waters by shipwrecked Spanish fleets centuries ago.

     Today, local law enforcement officials are focusing on the potential threat of hurricanes and security threats to St. Lucie County's small geographic area.

     Points of interest include nuclear reactors; a deepwater port; small international airport; high volume rail freight line; a chemical and food processing plant; baseball stadium; two main highways; college campuses; miles of shoreline along the ocean; the Indian River; and two ocean inlets.

     In the age of heightened security, it is important that individual law enforcement agencies adjust security measures to fit their growing needs. Currently, 240,000 people inhabit St. Lucie County; with the next wave of retiring baby boomers, the increase in population is expected to climb even more.

     Realizing the need for highly trained public safety personnel, the Indian River Community College academy will complete the construction of its state-of-the-art training center in Fort Pierce in 2008 with the capability to train 3,600 police, fire and EMT personnel each year.

     In order to meet the challenge of providing protective services to an increased population, law enforcement has embraced technology and resource-sharing to efficiently reduce the crime rate and maintain hometown security. Although the financial focus for homeland security is on large, high-target metropolitan areas, the resources to enhance technology have all but dried up.

Bridging the gap with technology

     As a resident of Treasure Coast for more than 30 years, Fort Pierce Police Chief Sean Baldwin has witnessed many changes and is concerned about the decrease in grant money available for his agency. Although cities nationwide reported dramatic decreases in violent crime from 2000 to 2005, a slight increase during 2006 is a less than desirable trend for Baldwin.

     "We're making progress decreasing our violent crime rate. Although we've cut it nearly in half, it's still too high and any increase is unacceptable," Baldwin says. "Homeland security starts with hometown security," he continues. "That means knowing our community, its strengths and challenges and using available funding to fight crime."

     Baldwin says it can be tricky to work with reduced budgets, and estimates a decrease in grant funds from $300,000 in 2001 to less than $50,000 in 2007. "For us here in Fort Pierce, the challenge becomes daunting."

     Baldwin is also concerned about the influx of gangs in the South Florida area and is taking steps within his agency to get a handle on the situation in Fort Pierce.

     "We are constantly monitoring intelligence from local sources which include school resource officers (SROs) and criminal databases," Baldwin says.

     "We coordinate with the Port St. Lucie Police Department and the St. Lucie County Sheriff's Office to share information about potential problems, but we need to increase available funding for technology and intelligence sharing."

     Baldwin says in the past, they received $300,000 in grant funding to increase technology in police cruisers, including the installation of onboard computers. After September 11, 2001, all 115 police officers in the city received personal protection gear which cost about $100 each, also from a federal Department of Homeland Security (DHS) grant.

     Port St. Lucie Police Chief John Skinner echoes the concerns of his counterpart in Fort Pierce. "Our funding from JAG (Justice Assistance Grant), Block Grants (Local Law Enforcement Block Grants), COPS (Community Oriented Policing Services) and Byrne Grants (Edward Byrne Memorial State and Local Law Enforcement Assistance Program) has decreased by nearly 90 percent since 2001," Skinner says.

     "We used to get more than a million dollars, now it's less than $100,000," he adds.

     Skinner admits the lack of available funds is frustrating for the law enforcement community. "Money for hometown security has been redirected to large cities and commonly perceived targets," he notes. "Intelligence is the most important tool to combat the threat to homeland security coming out of this area now. You need the technology and personnel to make that happen," he says.

     "It's about connecting the dots. Technology is critical. You can't be everywhere; we will never have enough police officers. Technology closes that gap."

Technology integration

     Determined to bring technology to the officers on the street, Skinner says all 200 police cars are equipped with state-of-the-art video systems, electronic ticketing and computer systems; the city has also added 80 police officers to accommodate the population increase over the last five years.

     One example of technology integration with the Port St. Lucie Police Department can be found on computers in police cars. The Code Amber Ticker is a Java script-based ticker that instantly displays scrolling text on-screen with detailed information about Amber Alerts issued for abducted children in America.

     Bryant Harper, president of Code Amber, says the Code Amber Ticker can be installed on any computer at no cost to any enforcement agency in the United States.

     Another system is called Virtual Partner, a software program developed by Advanced Public Safety (APS). This technology assists the officer in obtaining information at a traffic stop without taking his eyes off the road or leaving the vehicle. Speeding tickets are printed electronically and given to the driver in less than 5 minutes, with a video system recording every moment.

     "It's great to be with an agency whose administration is proactive in increasing our technology capabilities," according to Police Officer Jay Grant of the Port St. Lucie Police Department.

     The department purchased an electronic ticketing software program from APS and is considering adding another program. "We're looking at license plate readers which can scan and check tags against a database at the rate of about one per second," Grant says.

     Grant can enter a vehicle's tag number into the computer system to obtain information using the Virtual Partner software program. A human-like computer voice will respond with an alert tone to indicate whether or not the vehicle is stolen.

     According to Grant, the Virtual Partner software also provides information indicating if the owner of a vehicle is a suspected terrorist, sex offender or on an FBI watch list, and will advise of the appropriate actions for the officer to take.

     Grant also proposed purchasing five Blackberry units equipped with Virtual Partner software for motor units to have the added advantage of running queries on the spot with the swipe of a driver's license.

     "Providing officers with streamlined intelligence is an important consideration for homeland security," says Jeffrey Rubenstein, CEO of APS. "With fewer federal dollars available for city, county and state law enforcement agencies, many departments are utilizing technology to bridge the gap between officer safety and productivity and the fewer resources available to them."

Coordinating and cooperating

     St. Lucie County Sheriff Ken Mascara and his staff are resourceful in coordinating services and acquiring equipment for their department. "When funding gets redirected, we have to get creative," he says and adds that Web sites are checked for Army surplus equipment to purchase.

     Additionally, the St. Lucie Sheriff's Department has the region's bomb disposal unit, which serves Indian River, St. Lucie and Okeechobee counties. A bomb containment unit, new bomb disposal vehicle and a bomb disposal robot also have been acquired and are available for use in three counties.

     Lt. Larry Hostetler, St. Lucie's bomb team commander, notes they have been the region's only bomb team for years because they were the only ones with a disposal unit. When funds became available, the practice continued and hundreds of thousands of dollars were saved by not duplicating services.

     Their equipment is helpful and well-utilized, because the off-shore area is also a former military training range. The bomb team is called to the area approximately 70 times per year for suspicious packages and unexploded military devices.

     Mascara attributes successful resource sharing to the cooperation among county agencies.

     "We meet regularly with county and city administration, law enforcement, Florida Power and Light's (FPL) nuclear reactor staff, schools and hospitals to be sure we are meeting the needs of our growing community," he says. "This incredible growth means our residents expect more services and we need to deliver."

Command central

     The Emergency Operations Center (EOC), which includes the county wide 911 call center, has been more active in recent years, according to Mascara. "We've had three hurricanes so we know our evacuation plans are working," he says.

     Tom Christopher, emergency management coordinator in St. Lucie County, says a new center with twice the staffing capacity is being built farther west in the county at the fairgrounds site.

     The current EOC was constructed with the nuclear plant in mind and is surrounded by an earth mound, designed to prevent radiation from entering the facility.

     In addition to the EOC, Christopher says there is a Mobile Command Unit (MCU) housed at the fire district that is used for large scale disasters including hurricanes, tornadoes or for an inter-agency response incident such as a plane crash. The MCU can be used by any agency within St. Lucie County, which eliminates the need for expensive equipment purchased by each agency.

     Mascara also notes that while the Port Authority controls the deepwater port in Fort Pierce, there is not an airport police agency at the St. Lucie County airport. "We are the airport police," he says.

     The sheriff's office is responsible for the many miles of waterways throughout the county which are not directly included in the Port Authority's jurisdiction and operate the four helicopters used by all county agencies for law enforcement and rescue.

     Tradition Field, Florida Atlantic University's St. Lucie West Campus and Indian River Community College all have their own security personnel, as does the county's food and chemical processing plants, two hospitals and water treatment facilities.

Secure nuclear energy

     Of the 64 nuclear reactor sites nationwide, St. Lucie County has two; the first reactor went online in 1976 and the second in 1983. Each of the FPL reactors provide 839 megawatts of electricity to the area.

     Nuclear power plants have consistently been held to a higher level of security practices and procedures with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC) evaluations of all nuclear installations.

     According to Ken Clark, spokesperson from the NRC's regional office in Atlanta, the security at the St. Lucie plant is adequate. With recent hurricanes, the county and FPL have had several opportunities to practice their similar evacuation procedures.

     In terms of funding, Brian Jacques, security manager at the St. Lucie Nuclear Power Plant, says at the industry's cost they have significantly increased security since September 2001.

     According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, the nuclear industry spent an additional $1.2 billion in security related improvements.

     As a private company, FPL and other power providers do not receive direct funding from DHS. The most visible enhancements are the concrete vehicle barriers around the site; more discrete are intelligence gathering and surveillance equipment.

     "After 9/11 we saw the public's attention to detail and reporting suspicious activity significantly increase, but as time passed, it lessened," Jacques says. "However, the industry's attention to detail has increased because the threat never goes away for us.

     "Our main focus is to protect the health and safety of our employees and the public. We ask DHS to intensify intelligence gathering and provide us with timely information. Any unusual event is treated as a potential threat until it is resolved," Jacques adds.

     The FPL corporate security communicates regularly about security issues with agencies such as the FBI, Secret Service and Joint Terrorism Task Force, according to Jacques. In fact, the plant has complied with the recent industry-wide security mandates from the NRC.

     These measures include extending and fortifying security perimeters; increased security patrol; installing new barriers to protect against vehicle bombs; and installing additional high-tech surveillance equipment.

State-of-the-art training

     Scheduled for completion in 2008, the Indian River Community College (IRCC) Treasure Coast Public Safety Training Complex will serve as a state and national model for training public safety personnel.

     It is the only training facility in the nation to house a crime lab and medical examiner's office. The state-of-the-art observation area will enable students to observe DNA and ballistic testing and sophisticated forensics operations.

     IRCC's associate dean, Stephen Huntsberger, says there is already enough international interest to bring in students to the facility from around the world for training and he is working with the Department of State to further develop plans.

     "It was apparent from the design of this project that the complex had to address our area's growing population, as well as incorporate sophisticated technology to address homeland security issues into our intense training program," Huntsberger says.

     Combining criminal justice, fire science, and forensics in one place will enable IRCC to train 1,200 law enforcement and corrections officers, firefighters, EMTs, paralegals and social services professionals every year — three times as many as can be currently trained.

     The complex will also include six buildings on a 50-acre site and have realistic training props such as an airplane fuselage, railroad car, buildings, shoot house, traffic intersections and a controlled burn area.

     An emergency management program will be available for students and will include anti-terrorism training and U.S. security; disaster management; critical infrastructure; logistics; health services; full-scale preparedness; and response exercises. The cost for this facility is $35 million with funding from state appropriation, matching public grants, corporate sponsorships and individual gifts.

A safe, secure future

     Implementing technology and safety measures in St. Lucie County is a proactive measure for law enforcement professionals to take in order to brace for their next population surge.

     A progressive plan and forward thinking ensures the continued safety and hometown security for citizens of today and allows time to prepare for the needs of the St. Lucie County residents in the future.

     Linda Spagnoli is a well-known law enforcement advocate in the areas of communication, child safety, officer safety and sex-offender tracking. Her focus is on interagency data-sharing, emergency communications and media relations. She began her career assisting school resource officers install the D.A.R.E. program in Long Island, New York, schools. Spagnoli maintains her position as director of communications for Code Amber.

Loading