Editorial: Handling terrorism around here? Who knows how?

Wednesday, May 21, 2003

Three years ago the handling of a suspicious package from Thailand, arriving at the Carroll County Circuit Clerk's office two weeks ago, would have been construed as much ado about nothing.

But on the other side of Sept. 11, 2001, and the subsequent anthrax scare, the story underscores serious concerns about the preparedness of local officials, and everyday citizens, about what to do when such a situation arises.

Many folks might say, "Why would a terrorist hit little Berryville, located in the middle of nowhere?" Why indeed. What better way to strike "terror in the heartland," than to hit a small town in the center of the country? After all, if just the entire population of Berryville was wiped out in some vast conspiratorial attack, God forbid, that would be almost twice the number of people killed in the World Trade Center.

But enough of giving potential terrorists, domestic or foreign, any ideas.

The point is that we need to change our way of thinking.

Circuit Clerk Ramona Wilson did the right thing in contacting the local post office and the sheriff. But from that point on the process fell apart. Apparently the Department of Homeland Security, still in its developmental stages, has not developed a handbook for county, state and national officials to acquaint them with protocol for such questionable articles.

According to a spokesman with the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management, Tom Dugger, our county's DEM coordinator, should have been contacted immediately. The DEM's job is to coordinate information and resources for any kind of emergency, including bombs and diseases sent via the U.S. Mail. If Dugger doesn't know the answer on what to do, he has access to a huge database to provide the answer, and outline appropriate protocol.

Actually, Dugger was contacted in the latter stages of the suspicious mail incident, but by then the sheriff's deputy was taking the appropriate action in preparing the items for transport to the U.S. Postal Inspector in Little Rock. What took better than six hours to resolve, could have been taken care of by noon, if Dugger had been contacted.

The problem is not just local. The sheriff's office did the right thing in contacting the FBI, but the DEM spokesperson cannot imagine why the FBI initially referred the deputy to the state health department. Certainly, we were told, the Arkansas State Police is well acquainted with the appropriate steps to take in such a mysterious case.

Perhaps we all tend to think of the Department of Emergency management as dealing with natural disasters, such as tornados and floods. They do, of course, but the scope of the department is considerably larger than just that.

We live in a different world than we did just three years ago.

For future reference, whether you are the county judge or the casual fisherman, Tom Dugger can be reached by calling (870) 423-4275 or 423-4357. You can also check out the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management Web site at www.adem.state.ar.us. You can click on Emergency/Terrorism Preparedness Information for information on dealing with questionable packages. The site also has a wealth of other information.

-- EAL

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