Citizens keep watch on skies, chemical plants
WASHINGTON — They're America's new home-front warriors.
They're starting Neighborhood Watch groups, training in "disaster preparedness," or volunteering to do office work at police stations.
Legions of citizens are discovering ways to "do their part" for homeland security, thus helping transform America into a newly vigilant nation and sparking a revival of patriotic volunteerism, echoing the air-raid wardens and bandage rollers of World War II.
Ranging from retirees to recent grads, these active citizens are less visible than frontline "first responders," but perhaps just as crucial:
Retired chemical-company manager Bernie Saydlowski leads teams of gray-haired gumshoes through Delaware brownfields and chemical plants as they keep watch for weak security and suspicious activities.
Government lawyer Frank Sprtel, who, before Sept. 11, figured he was too busy to pursue his long-time love of flying, is now training with the Civil Air Patrol to pilot a tiny Cessna on search-and-rescue missions.
St. Louis 20-something Emily Kunz trains now-eager citizens in disaster-survival skills. "People used to say, 'Oh, yeah, you're in disaster prep yada, yada, yada,' " she says, chuckling. "Now they want to know all about the vocabulary and the skills."
Such commitments of time and talent reflect a desire, shared by thousands of Americans, to keep their country from being blindsided again by cunning terrorists.
The efforts have been regularly encouraged by President Bush. "If you're interested in doing something for your country," he said this week, "help somebody in need, write a check, give your time, volunteer."
His administration is suddenly promoting an alphabet soup of volunteer organizations and many have a homeland-security bent: Citizen Corps, Neighborhood Watch groups, the Volunteers In Police Service program, the Medical Reserve Corps, and more.
And it's having an effect: The new Citizen Corps, which focuses specifically on homeland security, has signed up more than 18,000 people, for example.
Skeptics worry that groups like Neighborhood Watch will become excuses for nosy neighbors to pry or discriminate against Arab Americans. They also wonder if the frenetic volunteerism actually boosts security. Defenders counter that every little bit helps and that in an era of biological and nuclear weapons, one person raising questions about suspicious behavior could save many lives.
As for Mr. Sprtel, he traces his love of flying to the fact that both of his grandfathers were pilots in World War II.
But it took the events of Sept. 11 to jolt him into action. "It was a catalyst," he says. Yet the air patrol is more than a hobby: He wants to be ready to respond after any future terror attacks. And "in order to participate in a meaningful way, you have to have the requisite training." So most weekends, he spit-shines his skills with a College Park, Md., squadron including flying in its red, white, and blue Cessna to practice search methods.
He's not alone. The Civil Air Patrol which used to hunt German submarines off America's East Coast has seen a surge in interest. In October alone, 2,500 people joined the 60,000-strong group, compared with about 1,300 a month before Sept. 11.
FOR Mr. Saydlowski, a long career with DuPont has led to "retirement" days full of traipsing through brownfields and chemical plants.
He's part of a 12,000-strong national Senior Environment Corps that's increasingly focusing on homeland security. His Wilmington group of about two dozen gets assignments from the state legislature and others to check how firms handle hazardous materials.
The group recently found a water-purification plant with nearly nonexistent security and warned that if its chlorine gas tanks were exploded, it could cause great harm. The group employs technical expertise, flexible schedules, and fierce independence that boosts their credibility. "You can't tell a retiree what to think," Saydlowski proudly exclaims.
Ms. Kunz, who recently graduated from college, has been spreading the gospel of disaster-preparedness as part of a national effort called Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT), coordinated by the
federal Citizen Corps. She regularly trains people in everything from shutting off home gas lines during earthquakes to making survival kits, complete with water-purification systems. "The whole concept," she says, "is that if there's a huge disaster, and our first responders are overwhelmed, are you going to be able help the people around you?"
That concept appears to be catching on.
In Newport Beach, Calif., for instance, the local fire department had been offering CERT training for years with few takers. Suddenly, the 27-hour course has the maximum of 35 people in every class and 400 on a waiting list.
Not everyone defines homeland security in traditional ways.
When Silicon Valley software engineer Imran Maskatia isn't playing videogames on his new X-Box, he's giving as many as four talks each week explaining Islam his life-long religion to school kids and other interested groups. Mr. Maskatia, whose parents are from India and Pakistan, has talked to non-Muslim groups for years. But after Sept. 11, interest in them skyrocketed to "an all-time high," making big demands on his time.
His talks, organized by the Islamic Networks Group, aim to change audience stereotypes of Muslims from "a terrorist on the TV screen to a friendly neighbor down the street."
And that, he says, helps strengthen America. "Even if we don't all agree with each other, at least we can live peacefully."