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A Bunker in Boca

Jim Campbell

Six bomb-detection dogs imported from Germany: $40,000.

Gas masks with special biological filters: $165,000.

A one-ton diesel truck, bomb suits, x-ray machines, and two Chevy Suburbans: $1.2 million.

A military-issue Jet Ranger helicopter: $1.3 million.

A full-service aviation and bomb unit to house ten pilots and four bomb technicians: $2.2 million.

Protecting Palm Beach County from a terrorist attack: priceless.

But for everything else, there's the rationale of the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office: "We don't have a choice," explains Undersheriff Kenneth P. Eggleston, referring to the department's wish list of September 11-inspired big-boy toys. The Emergency Response Task Force plan was hatched by Eggleston, Sheriff Edward W. Bieluch, and five other high-ranking brass. They hope to base the terrorist-battling brigade in the middle of tony Boca Raton.

"We started thinking about what our role was immediately after the attacks," Eggleston continues. "We have circumstances in Palm Beach County unlike any other place in the nation. For instance, while New York was the epicenter of the attacks and Washington, D.C., was second, Palm Beach County was the epicenter of terrorist activity prior to the attacks. They lived here."

Of course, the hijackers also lived in Hamburg, Boston, New York, and other parts of Florida.

"Yes, but the question is, are we going to wait for them to come back? Are some of them still living here?" he muses.

Using the familiar phrase "proactive rather than reactive," the undersheriff then says that the PBSO, the nation's eighth-largest sheriff's department, with 3000 officers, should increase its ability to squash evildoers.

In a letter to Palm Beach County commissioner Carol Roberts dated October 26, Eggleston wrote that the sheriff's department SWAT team should change from its current part-time status to full-time. Police boats, he added, should patrol the Intracoastal Waterway and offshore areas with the help of the Palm Beach Police Department. The PBPD has been "enlisted" by the Sheriff's Office to help monitor the Port of Palm Beach, where the number of officers inspecting cargo and commercial vehicles would increase from two to six deputies. Eggleston also explained that "expanded security for water facilities and possibly additional patrols" for Lake Okeechobee will be necessary.

Then there are the stocking stuffers: various kinds of hazmat suits, self-contained breathing apparatus packs, cooling vests, and a remote mobile investigator explosives robot -- a remote-controlled, toy-trucklike machine that allows a bomb technician to view, move, or disable an explosive device without endangering a human being.

The department also wants to designate special terrorist-related divisions. One would be in charge of "dignitary protection," Eggleston tells New Times, a second would handle something he terms "covert ops," and a third would include 30 bomb canines -- the largest doggie defense cadre in the country.

Each division would be staffed with ten officers, led by a sergeant and a "risk assessment coordinator," who would draw up blueprints of "every government facility, including schools and religious facilities," says Eggleston. The blueprints would then be translated into streaming Web video. "If a crazed gunman were to take over a building or something, this team could pull up on their laptops the schematics of any building and find the best way to go in there," he says.

Once the PBSO perfects this capability, which is used by no agency other than the New York City Police Department -- the office's brass dreams of selling it to businesses that want to make their buildings more secure.

And you thought money was tight this holiday season.

"It is!" says County Commission Chairman Warren H. Newell. "The county hasn't agreed to any of that." Faced with an economic forecast of a $22.9 million shortfall for 2002, the commissioner said a stern "no" to the sheriff more than a month ago. His colleagues seconded it. "The thing that got me was that a couple of days after the attacks, the county asked the federal government for money for law enforcement," says Newell. "Then I turned around and got this letter from the sheriff asking for all these additional gadgets. On top of that, I think we already have an emergency center set up."

Bill O'Brien directs the year-old Palm Beach Division of Emergency Management, which runs the emergency center. A staff of 25 administrators keeps in contact with other law enforcement agencies, such as the PBSO, to monitor calls and coordinate communication between police and emergency workers throughout the county. "But we aren't first-responders," he says. "So we aren't the same thing" that Eggleston, the sheriff, and Col. William Tremer have proposed. Yet theoretically, Emergency Management is alerted to the same calls as PBSO. Within the past six months, O'Brien recalls receiving such notification three times, for a false report of anthrax and two threatening hurricanes.

The PBSO has provided 24-hour security at American Media Inc. since October, when an employee died of anthrax inhalation and another was infected. The department hasn't calculated the number of "white powder" calls it has answered since then, but Eggleston suspects it's in the thousands.

Since September 11, PBSO has expended 5532 man-hours valued at $383,639 for salaries and benefits for emergency-related efforts. Officers spent more than 3000 of those hours at the Palm Beach International Airport. Eggleston believes that the Emergency Response Task Force would cut down on the amount of overtime officers have to work and improve PBSO's ability to respond to biological-weapons calls.

Realizing that the county well is dry, the Sheriff's Office is applying for federal grants and relying on Palm Beach philanthropists, who have already given close to $1 million. The most generous contributor to the PBSO's plan for a bunker in Boca is the American Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County. In November, the organization donated $7500 to buy a bomb-sniffing dog and provided a 3000-square-foot building at Glades Road and 95th Avenue on the AJF's Boca Raton campus for bomb-squad and aviation-unit headquarters. The County Commission must approve the use of the building for law enforcement purposes. (Funding for the heliport isn't an immediate priority for the PBSO or the federation because the department must pass a series of certifying tests just to obtain the Jet Ranger helicopter.)

Brett Burstell, director of the AJF's South campus, says the federation answered the sheriff department's call because members were concerned that West Palm emergency specialists might not be able to respond fast enough to a South Palm attack, an event Burstell believes is most likely to happen at a synagogue or temple -- a suspicion that was, incidentally, heightened by warnings issued by the Palm Beach Sheriff's Office shortly after 9/11.

"We were told that some statements were being made," Burstell says. "[And] that there was some information that law enforcement had that we were high on threat level and concern."

The donations are only the latest in a series of security measures taken by the federation. Before the attacks, the campus was open to traffic from State Road 441. Today, access is restricted to one entrance manned 24 hours by a security guard.

Burstell says the federation has a longstanding relationship with the PBSO, adding that officers worked security at Jewish places of worship during high holidays in September. "They're very good at spotting every potential risk. They need the gas masks, the additional equipment, and training," he insists. "This is for the good of the whole community, not just Jews. Apart from non-American terrorists, we are dealing here with two very different groups of people, some of whom support Israel and others who support Palestine. If you want to prevent an incident, you have to prepare for it."


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