Maryland scrutinizes its security

Officials examine state's emergency response systems

Talks began after Sept. 11

Safeguarding capital for Assembly session is immediate issue

October 07, 2001|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Maryland officials have embarked on an extensive review of the state's emergency response systems in light of the terrorist attacks last month in New York and Northern Virginia.

This week, Gov. Parris N. Glendening, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. plan to meet privately for the first time to discuss a range of security issues.

Talks are expected to address details as small as whether two State House doors should be permanently closed, and they could extend to concepts as broad as a possible change to the governor's Cabinet for better disaster coordination.

"There's a whole lot of people working behind the scenes to come up with proposals," Taylor said. "It's safe to say the state of Maryland will be investing in additional security. I couldn't begin to tell you how much and in what way."

Discussions involving department heads and agencies began within days after the attacks Sept. 11. Among the dozens of topics covered by staffers: how best to protect the state's smaller airports and what to do if a municipal water supply is contaminated by a biological attack.

At the same time, legislators vowed to review state laws with an eye toward strengthening penalties for terrorism-related crimes.

Although proposals are in the talking stages, the discussions reveal the difficulty for even a small state to deal with terrorism threats and the depth of unease wrought by the hijackers who steered airliners into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon.

"Almost all the plans we have were written to respond to a single incident," said Michael E. Morrill, a spokesman for Glendening. "What Sept. 11th taught us was that we have to look at the potential of multiple incidents occurring simultaneously."

An immediate concern for Glendening and legislative leaders is how best to provide security for the historic capital complex in Annapolis, which in four months will be bustling with legislators, lobbyists, citizens and reporters in town for the annual General Assembly session.

Long lines and delays

Those who work in the State House worry about long lines at new identification checkpoints and the symbolic impact of potential protections such as metal detectors in a building that dates to 1772.

"It's the oldest statehouse in continuous legislative use in the country," said Mimi Calvert, director of exhibits and public outreach for the Maryland State Archives. "It needs to have some accessibility to people. I think they need to find a balance ... that works for everybody."

Last year, a plan for heightened security -- prompted in part by a shooting at the U.S. Capitol in 1998 -- was mothballed after critics raised concerns about public access.

But some of its provisions are being revived. Guards have already closed two ground-level entrances to the building and are checking identification of all who enter -- without exception.

Last week, Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, the former Baltimore mayor and governor, left his badge behind.

He was given a visitor's sticker, which he wore on his lapel during the state Board of Public Works meeting.

Many uncertainties

As in other states, Maryland's security talks are occurring in a vacuum of sorts. With responsibilities of the new White House Office of Homeland Security still undetermined, no one knows exactly what role state agencies would play in future disaster response.

The governor of Missouri has appointed a Cabinet-level anti-terrorism adviser, who will serve as a liaison to the federal office. "That's something that could be on the table" in Maryland, Taylor said.

But that idea, and others, are sure to receive scrutiny from wary lawmakers who must also grapple with a foundering economy and pressing needs in health care, education and transportation.

"I don't want to create a new bureaucracy, but I certainly support more effective coordination of security responses," said Del. John R. Leopold, an Anne Arundel Republican and a deputy minority whip.

Last week, Leopold wrote members of the state's congressional delegation asking that a 1996 federal program that provides money for large cities to train their police and fire departments for terrorist attacks be expanded.

"I'm trying to secure more funding for suburban and rural areas," he said.

Security is a particularly sensitive issue in Maryland because of the state's proximity to the District of Columbia and its dense population in cities and along interstate highways.

Many federal facilities could provide high-profile targets for terrorists, such as the headquarters of the National Security Agency at Fort Meade and the Social Security Administration in Woodlawn, as well as the Naval Academy in Annapolis and Camp David in Frederick County.

But Maryland is not alone. Every state is scrutinizing its security plans, according to the National Governors Association. From Maine to California, state officials are buying equipment to protect against chemical attacks and proposing laws that would deter terrorists.

And they're looking for federal assistance. Maryland's health secretary, Dr. Georges Benjamin, said he is using his position as president of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials to "make sure states are appropriately funded on the federal side" in the fight against biological warfare.

Health workers remain on heightened alert in Maryland, Benjamin said, looking for signs of clusters of disease or illness that could be caused by bioterrorism. He doesn't expect the added attention to diminish soon.

"I am immersed in this issue," Benjamin said. "This is a massive task."

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