County added $10 million in federal grants following 9/11

Within seconds, Medford fire engineer Dan Buchanan could feel the effects of being sealed up inside a bulky, rubberized suit that can block some highly toxic biological and chemical substances.

"It gets hot really quick," he said.

The suit, only good for about a half-hour of use at a time, is representative of some of the top-of-the-line gear that emergency service providers in Jackson County amassed in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

More than $10 million has poured into the county to beef up communications systems for emergency services, to install better baggage-handling systems at the airport and to provide high-tech medical diagnostic equipment.

The terrorist attacks triggered an effort by the federal government to beef up security throughout the U.S. and to provide emergency service providers with better tools in case the worst happens.

Buchanan is part of Southern Oregon's Hazmat (hazardous materials) Team, which is trained to deal with chemical spills.

After Buchanan took off his gear, the air-supply unit lying on the ground began beeping ominously. When the air supply isn't working correctly, the beeper, known as a Personal Alert Safety System device, emits a sound to help locate a firefighter in distress.

For Medford fire Capt. Dale Mawhirter, the beeping sound evoked an eerie reminder of the aftermath of the destruction of the World Trade Center towers when 343 firefighters lost their lives.

"Somewhere in that rubble, PASS devices were going off for many of the firefighters," he said.

Other high-tech gizmos that now are located in Jackson County include an anthrax detector, a robot that explodes bombs and a $32,000 portable biochemical shower.

Much of the disaster equipment is stored away, used only occasionally. Some of the items still are new, and firefighters may never have to put them to a real-life test.

"You hope to never use your auto insurance, but you've got to have it," said Gordon Sletmoe, Medford's deputy fire chief. "Some of this equipment hasn't been deployed for its intended use."

Other devices are used on a daily basis, such as new portable radios and mobile data units.

"Every first responder agency has benefitted from Homeland Security grants," said Mike Curry, the county's emergency management manager.

The new equipment helped convert emergency communications systems to digital before a 2012 deadline.

The emergency call center built at the airport benefitted from Homeland Security dollars and led to the combining of communications systems used by Medford police, the Jackson County Sheriff's Department and other agencies.

Sophisticated detection equipment still is functioning, constantly checking for potential terrorist threats.

At the U.S. Postal Service's Medford production center, every letter is sent through a detector that hasn't found anything in its six years of service.

"We have never had a biohazard in our facility," said Tony Plant, Medford postmaster.

The detector sniffs out anthrax and other toxins that could be slipped into the 100,000 pieces of mail processed daily.

In October 2001, two postal workers at the center that processes mail for Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., died after inhaling anthrax spores.

Medford's detection machine, which is routinely tested, automatically notifies the U.S. Department of Homeland Security if anything is found and a special response unit from Portland can be on site in two hours.

The single biggest security system installed in the county after the terrorist attacks is an automated baggage system at the Medford airport, installed in 2008 at a cost of $2.1 million.

Checked bags are placed on a conveyor belt and sent through a building that scans each item before it's placed on a plane.

"Prior to 9/11, the checked baggage was not screened at all," said Bern Case, airport director.

The new airport terminal was designed with security in mind, including providing a single access point for passengers going to their planes.

If a severe terrorist threat strikes the country, Case said the airport is designed to take other precautions as well.

The loading and unloading zone in front of the terminal can be closed off and vehicles can be directed through the short-term parking area to keep them well away, he said.

Bern said there have been occasional bomb threats and passengers who inadvertently forget to declare a weapon, but nothing serious.

"We haven't had anything tied to terrorism," he said.

Some early ideas envisioned after the terrorist attacks never panned out or didn't work as expected.

The federal government proposed building a bomb-hardened air traffic control tower with berms to prevent someone driving up too close to the building. Eventually, those ideas went to the wayside.

Medford police received grants totaling $1.2 million for a high-speed communications system in 2003. The system didn't work as expected and was donated to Ashland police in 2008.

Medford Police Chief Tim George said communications equipment, disaster planning and other training since 9/11 have helped law enforcement become more vigilant and better prepared.

On the day of the terrorist attacks, George said Medford police sent units to the airport to help beef up law enforcement. Medford police now have a contract with the federal government to provide law enforcement support at the airport.

In 2008, the county received a $250,000 communications van that can be used to transmit from remote locations or in emergencies.

"We have a whole laundry list of equipment that made us more secure," George said.

Damian Mann is a reporter for the Mail Tribune. Reach him at 541-776-4476 or email

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