Sept. 11: One Year Later

How prepared is your facility to handle terrorism, disasters and other threats?

By Stacy St. Clair

There once was a time when rec managers spent their days worrying about manicuring baseball fields, thwarting petty vandalism and maintaining proper chlorine levels.

Now, in the post-Sept. 11 world, they're distracted by terrorism threats, possible pipe bombs and protecting their patrons.

As absurd as it would have seemed a year ago, law-enforcement officials today consider recreation facilities potential terrorism targets. Area parks and pools provide an ideal mark for would-be bombers because of the large number of people they attract.

"Can that happen in a park?" asks FBI Special Agent Bob Holley, a bomb technician assigned to Chicago's Joint Terrorism Task Force. "Absolutely. Think of the summertime when the pools are filled with kids."

Illinois park officials pondered the very thought at a terrorism conference sponsored by the Illinois Park & Recreation Association this summer. They dedicated much of the summit to grilling Holley and other emergency service officials about how they could provide services and still protect their clients.

The answer is, quite simply, not as easily as they did before Sept. 11.

While planning the seminar, association spokeswoman Gail Cohen contemplated the new dangers as she drove past a local waterpark. Hundreds of children were splashing in the water, and she realized nothing would prevent someone from lobbing a bomb over the fence.

"It's just a matter of time before something happens," she says. "We need to make some major adjustments in how we do things."

Recreation managers in Highland Park, Ill., learned that lesson earlier this summer when the FBI issued a warning about possible terrorists' plans to blow up tanker trucks near synagogues or in Jewish neighborhoods. Within moments of the warning's release, the park district—which provides service to a heavily Jewish area of the Chicago suburbs—was flooded with phone calls from anxious parents.

Most parents wanted to know what the park officials were doing to protect the children in district day camps. Some just wanted to know if the warning was true or only a rumor.

Park officials reacted, quite rightly, by calling the local police department for verification. Authorities confirmed the FBI warning, but said no specific information was available. If Highland Park were a target, no one could say for sure.

With only ambiguous information available, park officials radioed all their field personnel and asked them to be on the lookout for suspicious trucks or bags in the area. They did not cancel any activities that day or tell the children about the warnings.

In the end, no tanker trucks exploded anywhere. Highland Park, however, reacted exactly as authorities would have instructed.

Highland Park's responsibilities in a post-Sept. 11 world, it seems, are no different than the things the government has asked everyone to do since the attacks.

Be more alert. Report suspicions to local authorities. Assume nothing.

Many local authorities offer additional training to recreation facilities, which are presumably terrorist targets because of the thousands of innocent civilians they can attract during an event. Most bomb squads will teach facility employees how to spot to suspicious packages and what to do once something's detected. (Best advice: Never move a suspicious package, even if it's in the middle of a crowd. Pipe bombs are designed to explode with the smallest movement.)

The right option, authorities say, is to clear the area immediately and call the local police department. Recreation managers should never be afraid or hesitate to report suspicious occurrences at their facilities—no matter how trivial they seem.

"If it's unusual to you, it's definitely going to be unusual to me," FBI's Holley says. "If you fail to call, and it turns out to be something, you're going to have that on your conscience for the rest of your life."

Should another attack occur, rec facilities should have a disaster reaction plan that includes ensuring the immediate safety of patrons and dealing with individuals who take advantages of tragedies. William J. Wald, CEO of the Illinois Parks & Recreation Association, worries about dangerous people who might come to recreation facilities to snatch children.

Managers should guard against letting children go with just anyone who comes to pick them up, Wald says. He believes kidnappers will come to facilities, claiming to be custodial parents and demanding the children be with their families during a national crisis.

"There are people who will take advantage of our patrons and employees," Wald says. "We need to be conscious of this fact. We need to have a plan in place."

Recreation facilities also can play important roles after a terrorist act in their community—even if they're not directly involved. In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, gymnasiums, baseball fields and football stadiums were used as staging areas for the rescue/clean-up effort. They became blood banks, food pantries, triage areas and, in some cases, morgues.

By this time, every community should have an emergency response plan in case of a terrorist attack, natural disaster or other incident. Recreation facilities also should know already what role they would play in such disaster. If they don't, they should contact local authorities immediately and offer their buildings, parks, fields, etc., in times of crisis.

Another call should be made to the local chapter of the American Red Cross, which often looks to facilities for help in times of crisis for storage necessities such as medical supplies, food and cots. The Red Cross brings supplies to a disaster site but needs a place to store them until they can assess the situation and determine where they can best be used.

"This where we can engage park districts," says Richard Bynum, senior director of disaster services for the American Red Cross of Greater Chicago. "They can give us a place to store our supplies until we know what we're facing."

However, the greatest role recreation facilities can play in the war against terrorism is the one they've always played. They can continue to offer a gathering place, where people of all races, faiths and colors can stop dwelling on their differences and share positive experiences together.

"Parks and recreation has always been about bringing people together," Wald says. "We must continue to bring all type of people together."

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