Y2K plans enlist Guard

Troops to back up Baltimore's police on New Year's Eve

Soldiers on standby only

State Police, military prepare across Md. for computer failure

November 13, 1999|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

Baltimore police will be joined by a contingent of National Guard troops on New Year's Eve as a backup force in case of major disturbances stemming from everything from drunken parties to a loss of basic services because of a large-scale computer breakdown.

Meanwhile, State Police will have one of their largest mobilizations ever as 1,600 sworn officers fan out across the roadways that weekend.

State and local officials say they expect few problems, but they want to be prepared for anything from water and power systems across the state shutting down to drunken revelers creating disturbances as the New Year begins.

"The governor has made it clear he wants the State of Maryland to be prepared in every way, shape and form, including the National Guard in a support capacity," said Jack Cahalan, deputy press secretary to Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

The Baltimore Police Department's mobilization for New Year's is being matched in many ways by cities nationwide, but so far, only Washington officials say theirs will include National Guard troops.

Baltimore's acting police commissioner, Col. Bert L. Shirey, said the city will have 1,300 officers -- two-thirds more than normal -- patrolling its streets on New Year's Eve.

Shirey said 85 to 100 National Guard military police officers will be stationed at the Guard's Fifth Regiment Armory on Division Street in case they're needed.

The city might ask the governor to station another 500 National Guard troops there, but the extra troops will probably not be needed, Shirey said.

"We are going to re-evaluate, but it appears during peak time plenty of people in blue will be ready to handle what happens," Shirey said.

Mayor-elect Martin O'Malley, who will be sworn in Dec. 7, said he is consulting with city officials on potential Y2K problems and was relieved to know that the National Guard will be available if needed -- although he has not talked with Glendening about the troops.

City Council President-elect Sheila Dixon said she was concerned that the city's plans may be "overreaction" but wants to know more about them.

"I don't think this year, other than additional parties, is going to create the activity where we would need the National Guard to come," Dixon said.

Guard members have been training for New Year's for almost a year.

National Guard leaders will be stationed at the state's emergency management command bunker at Camp Fretterd Military Reservation in Reisterstown.

As many as 6,500 Army and 1,800 Air National Guard troops could be mobilized in a few hours, said Capt. Drew Sullins, spokesman for the Maryland National Guard.

`Security blanket'

"Our position is that we are not going to be the red-caped heroes that save the day because Baltimore City police cannot handle something," Sullins said. "We are the security blanket of the state; and in the event the mayor and police chief decide they need some help, we are available."

National Guard troops last patrolled in Baltimore during the blizzard of 1996, when more than 400 soldiers, many driving olive Humvees, helped police and res- cue workers navigate snow-filled streets.

Statewide, more than 1,600 Maryland State Police troopers -- the entire force -- will be working over the New Year's Day holiday patrolling the state's 23 counties, police spokesman Major Greg Shipley said.

"You probably won't see this presence again in our lifetime," Shipley said. "It is an unusual event -- the millennium -- and we are prepared for the worst."

Generators prepared

State police tactical units and SWAT teams will be prepared for any disturbance or emergency, Shipley said. Large generators will be placed on tractor-trailers for quick response to any large-scale power outage, he said.

"We don't really know what is going to happen for Y2K," said Quentin Banks, director of the Maryland Emergency Management Agency. "But if there are things that do happen, we believe the disruption will be minimal," with essential state functions being carried out normally.

Banks said the state's emergency management command center will be staffed by officials from all state agencies, the U.S. Coast Guard and Army Corps of Engineers and the Red Cross.

Baltimore has established an emergency Y2K command center in the former Fire Department headquarters at 410 E. Lexington St., where Police, Fire and Public Works Department officials will monitor problems.

In July, the General Accounting Office placed Baltimore on a federal report of cities not prepared to handle computer problems linked to the change to the New Year. Among the areas of concern were water distribution, wastewater treatment, and emergency services.

The city has played down the report.

Shirey said crowds are expected at the Inner Harbor and Fells Point, so the police presence will be large in both areas. And police are worried that the practice of firing guns into the air at midnight could increase sharply.

On Nov. 30, police and city officials will meet with representatives of the city's major hospitals, businesses, universities and factories to coordinate Y2K preparations.

Plans in other cities

Police in cities including Seattle, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles said they will maximize their presence on New Year's, but don't plan to have National Guard troops as immediate backup.

In Washington, National Guard troops will augment 3,200 police officers -- but only for directing traffic, said Peter Laporte, director of the Washington Emergency Management Agency.

Glendening's office hopes National Guard troops never have to be seen on the streets of Baltimore.

"The National Guard is certainly in the mix, but as far as armed personnel carriers driving down streets -- it's doubtful," Cahalan said.

Sun staff writers Joanna Daemmrich, Erin Texeira and Ivan Penn contributed to this article.

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