UTICA — With terrorist activity a constant threat, terrorist attacks could happen in any area — urban, suburban, or rural. Five of Utica’s first responders — Mike Evans, chief of EMS; Mike Lewis, EMS captain; Sgt. Andy Kofod of the Utica Police Department; Police Officer Kevin Wolf; and Jason Vila, EMS — attended a training program designed to prepare law enforcement, emergency medical service and fire departments to respond to such a threat.
The five-day session, held in New Mexico, was titled “Incident Resource to Terrorist Bombings.”
“We had [an official] from Columbine who was one of the instructors, and we had another instructor from the Twin Towers [terrorist attack], so basically the whole scheme of things was to teach us not to make the same mistakes that they made,” said Evans.
Another instructor was a representative from the Oklahoma City bombing that took place in 1995. A domestic terrorist group bombed a federal building, killing 168 people and injuring 800 victims. The incident at Columbine High School, which took place in 1999 and where two students killed 12 students and one teacher while many others were wounded, was especially troubling, because the incident took place in a small town, not in a big city. One of the major things the first responders learned is that these incidents were extensively organized and planned.
“[We learned] that these kids were watching how [emergency workers responded and] did everything. [The two students] set up traps to try and get them because they did the same thing over and over,” Wolf explained. “And that is what we are trying to learn, is how to deal with stuff like that in a different way.”
“They showed us what explosives were [used in Columbine], how it was made, and the effects of it,” said Lewis.
Many of the bombs studied not only destroyed the target, he said, but affected miles of the surrounding area. When the class was shown a demonstration on the effect of a car bomb, not only was the car destroyed, but four miles of the surrounding area were also damaged.
“The biggest thing was that you could buy all of this stuff at your local hardware store or at Wal-Mart,” said Evans. “In the class, we went over about 40 different bombs, and the material that you need to make these bombs can be bought at Wal-Mart, your local hardware store and some of the stuff you already have at home.”
Another thing the responders were taught was to notice suspicious materials, production or activity when they are on the street every day.
“They taught us to notice if there are 500-pound sacks of fertilizers sitting in someone’s house, and he has a yard the size of a postage stamp. It makes you think, and to look at these different chemicals [when we are out],” said Wolf.
A lot of classroom time was spent studying and learning about different chemicals, said Kofod.
“They would show us pictures and different components that aren’t a bomb by themselves, but if you see them together, then you realize they can make a bomb,” he said.
“It was a real strict class. The class was from 7:30 in the morning and you didn’t get out until 5 at night,” said Evans.
The program included classroom teachings, hands-on demonstrations ad workshops, as well as an end-of-session exam.
“They gave us a pre-test to see what we knew when we first got out there, and then at the end of class, there was a final exam that we had to pass; and there was no grading curve. If you didn’t pass, you didn’t get your certificate to be an instructor,” said Lewis.
Students were not permitted to take cell phones or personal items into the classroom; anything that was brought in had to be accounted for when they left.
“It was really a controlled atmosphere,” said Lewis. “[The training] opened your eyes to a lot of stuff you would take for granted normally, but the program looked at it in a whole different light.”
“There are terrorist targets all around,” said Kofod, adding that potential targets include schools, government buildings and industry structures.
“Whether you are in a city, town or whatever, it is a really good experience to send someone [to the training course], and it didn’t cost the department a thing,” said Evans.
The federal government paid for all of the expenses, and participants used personal or vacation time to attend.
“If spending a little [personal] time or vacation to go out there and learn this can keep us out of the news like Columbine, then I guess it’s worth it,” said Wolf.
“We learned a lot,” Kofod added.
The Utica emergency workers continue their education throughout the year locally, but they agreed the experience in New Mexico provided them with a in-depth, hands-on look into incidents that took place around the country. The Utica first responders can now teach on what they learned to other law enforcement officers, EMS, and fire department.