September 11, 2011

At Lambeau Field and beyond, how a police force stepped up security after 9/11

A COLLABORATIVE SERIES

The Center is exploring gaps in Wisconsin’s emergency preparedness to answer the question: A decade after 9/11, are we safer?

A joint project of Gannett Wisconsin Media and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

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Ever notice that semitrailer parked on Lombardi Avenue during Green Bay Packers home games?

It’s there to prevent possible vehicles armed with explosives from getting anywhere close to Lambeau Field, said Green Bay police Lt. Jim Runge.

That security tactic, often unnoticed by many, goes a long way toward ensuring fans’ safety, he said.

Since 9/11, law enforcement agencies and emergency responders nationwide have received federal funding for new equipment and logged hours of special training to be prepared for a large-scale crisis.

“It’s forced us to work together,” said Runge, who noted that federal officials have placed an emphasis on collaboration among local departments after terrorist attacks killed nearly 3,000 people on Sept. 11, 2001.

Green Bay police sometimes receive threat alerts to the area from the FBI, Runge said. However, there have been no specific threats to Lambeau Field, he said.

In 2005, a U.S. Department of Homeland Security grant for nearly $60,000 helped form the 11-member Green Bay police dive team. The team was originally designed to search the bottoms of ships for explosive devices, Runge said. The team has since rescued victims stranded on waterways and searched local rivers for crime evidence.

Also in 2005, a $200,000 Homeland Security grant helped the city pay for eight surveillance cameras and the wireless technology to operate them. The number of cameras has grown to nearly 40 and they monitor downtown bridges and the Port of Green Bay.

Formed in 2003, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security works to protect the nation from terrorism and other hazards.

The department has developed a standard that helps agencies nationwide respond similarly to emergency situations. That becomes vital if dozens of fire crews and law enforcement agencies respond to an attack, said Cullen Peltier, director of Brown County Emergency Management.

“We can take first responders from Wrightstown and integrate them in a response in Green Bay and they will know how the others respond and fit within the command system,” Peltier said.

Peltier recently attended a training session at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. The event focused on response techniques in case of a large fire or at-large gunman.

Green Bay fire Lt. Nick Craig said increased concerns about domestic terror has led to a focus on equipment. Crews now have special adapters that connect to breathing masks to protect against hazardous particles, such as anthrax, he said.

Dangers of explosive attacks are greater for government buildings and places where many people gather, such as Lambeau Field, he said.

“That’s definitely considered a potential target for a terrorist group,” Craig said of the stadium, which seats more than 72,000.

Craig stressed that crews train year-round on how to handle an array of risks, including false alarm calls where responders could be purposely sent into harm’s way. It’s crucial for firefighters to analyze a scene, which can be difficult if crews from various departments lack an efficient radio system, he said.

“If you don’t have a radio that would be able to communicate to them, it’s basically being in a dangerous situation with people that speak different languages,” Craig said.

Motorola has been selected to upgrade the county’s radio system, which would follow federal requirements to assure more adequate communication among the county’s law enforcement and first responder agencies. The new system must be installed by Jan. 1, 2013.

Allouez fire Capt. Bryan Becker said New York City firefighters faced radio communications problems, which compromised their safety on Sept. 11, 2001.

“If I’m outside the building and see something that’s not going good, I need to be able to radio to crews inside to get out of there,” Becker said.

Green Bay fire Capt. Peter Sponholtz serves as assistant team leader of the Brown County Hazardous Materials Team.

Before 9/11, authorities sent suspicious white powders to the State Crime Lab, and wouldn’t get results back until three days later, he said. Now, officials have equipment to determine results on site within 20 minutes.

That type of early detection provides peace of mind to residents and emergency responders, he said.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks forced local departments to better prepare for hazards, he added.

“A lot of times we relied on the military, and they’re not going to be there for quite a number of hours.”

Regular training is required to adequately handle accidents involving dangerous gases and fluids, he said.

Each of the twin towers destroyed on 9/11 was 110 stories high. The tallest above-ground building in Green Bay is St. Vincent Hospital at 10 stories high, according to city records.

However, Howard fire Chief Ed Jahnke said it’s not so much height that provides challenges for firefighters, but rather the number of people inside a building.

Dangers rise when people rush to a limited number of exits, he said.

“Then, we have to go in and get them, and we’re going to do that,” he said of the added risk to firefighters.

Overall, the increased training provided to firefighters has led to a safer community, he said.

“Because we can do work together at a high level of training, it allows us to be that much more efficient on small events.”