"Orange’ alert ….
December 23, 2003
America may be on orange alert, but law enforcement officials in the mountains say the raised threat isn’t going to get in the way of citizens having a safe, relaxing holiday.
“(Terrorists) know the holidays are important to us,” said Summit County Sheriff Joe Morales. “They probably know our defenses are down a little bit, that we’re focused on other things. But we’re not letting our guard down.”
President Bush upped the “alert” status to orange, or high, after intelligence sources said they had reason to believe there was a high chance of a terrorist attack during the holiday season. The only higher alert is red, or severe.
“Although the advisory has gone up, there are no specifics I’m aware of for Colorado or the Vail Valley,” Vail Police Chief Dwight Henninger, who monitors daily reports from federal and state agencies, said Tuesday.
At times of heightened alert, Henninger says, police can simply make people feel more comfortable.
“We have reviewed preparations and pre-planning to increase our vigilance during these elevated periods,” Henninger said. “I encourage officers to spend more time on foot to help people feel comfortable here. One of our primary missions is to provide a sense of safety and security.”
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This time, intelligence sources say there is a high chance terrorist activities could involve air traffic or the trucking industry.
“People traveling home for the holidays, if they see suspicious activities, they have to let someone know,” Morales said. “Hundreds of local residents are traveling over the holidays; they should keep their eyes peeled and their ears open.”
Trucks, he said, are always a threat, particularly since a major interstate and a hazardous materials route bisect Summit County.
“Those are major critical infrastructure,” Morales said. “We have to be vigilant in what we see.”
Such vigilance paid off late Sunday night when a Colorado State Patrol trooper pulled a semi truck over, only to discover the driver had just traveled through the Eisenhower Tunnel with 40,000 pounds of low-level radioactive waste material.
Hazardous material is only permitted on U.S. Highway 6 over Loveland Pass.
Tunnel employees also plan to be more aware of vehicles passing over the Continental Divide.
Law enforcement will be doing more patrols near schools, hospitals, 911 emergency communications centers, relay stations, transformers and dams such as those at the Dillon and Green Mountain reservoirs.
Federal agents took over security on the Green Mountain Dam Sept. 11, 2001, and local law enforcement keeps an eye on the Dillon Reservoir, as it is a major supply of water for Denver.
Additionally, officers who book people in jail are being more vigilant about who people are.
Morales says he is confident local emergency personnel can handle whatever might be thrown this way.
“The initial response is always going to be a local response,” he said. “They’d identify what it is and establish safety perimeters, then get the state and federal resources. The whole machine would be activated. Hazmat people are more than capable of sizing something like that up to get the big ball rolling, God forbid it should ever happen.”
Though the Bush Administration’s color-coded warning system has been criticized by some for needlessly raising anxieties without giving specific information, Henninger said it’s useful.
“The alternative is doing nothing and clearly, Monday-morning quarterbacks have had a field day with Sept. 11 – if you put all the pieces together after the fact, you can say you should’ve known,” Henninger said. “I think the system’s appropriate, but I’d like to see it on more of a regional basis.”
Increasing vigilance can mean officers working longer overtime hours or hiring additional personnel.
“It’s difficult in these fiscal times. We used to have 33 officers, now we have 27,” he said. “It makes it difficult to throw bodies at something.”
Morales and other police officials are sharing information with their officers as it comes in from federal and state officials. Trucking companies have been made aware that they should pay special attention to their vehicles and their loads.
Breckenridge Police Chief Rick Holman agreed life must go on, but with vigilance.
“We’re certainly not going to change anything we’re doing,” he said. “We’re just asking people to be more aware. I agree with the governor; we’re not going to allow these people to dictate what we’re doing in our lives.”
“We’re not out of the woods yet,” Morales said. “This war on terror is going to go on for a while. All that foreign activity affects us locally. But we can’t give in; that’s what they’re hoping for, that America gets weak.
“All of us need to stand resolute by being vigilant and be aware that there are still threats,” he continued. “We should also enjoy our American lives and holidays and continue on doing what they would normally do.”
Vail Daily reporter Matt Zalaznick contributed to this report.