Thursday, January 9, 2014
For North Augusta Department of Public Safety, 2013 was a pretty big year.
With the way 2014 is shaping up, it may be even larger.
According to Chief John Thomas, director of Public Safety, interviews are already beginning for the two new officer positions. North Augusta City Council agreed that due to the growth of the City, both in land and population, funds are to be allocated in the budget to hire new officers each year for the next four years. Another project is the long talked about Station 3 on Belvedere-Clearwater Road. Ground will be broken for the building in March.
“The fact that we'll have a station sergeant and three firefighters to go with it will improve the ISO ratings in that particular area,” Thomas said. “In turn, our fire coverage will be extended, and that's something we are very excited about. That will take us through November or December, but that's a great asset for us to have.”
Of course, there are other things that Public Safety acquired throughout the year to try and stay one step ahead. One of the most talked about, and debated, acquisitions was the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected – or MRAP – vehicle. Though some may feel that the vehicle is unnecessary or a bit extreme, the intent was that if it is never needed that it would be available. Other acquisitions included a fingerprint scanner, and the City also purchased high-tech security cameras to give officers a chance to apprehend individuals in crimes, such as break-ins, which are more or less over in 10 seconds.
It's all about scenarios for Thomas, and he will be the first to tell you that. Though he may not think of every scenario at any given time, there are few that he hasn't thought of.
“The five years that I've been here, we have seen so many bad things transpire,” he said. “We go from bank robberies to officers being shot in my department to three officers being killed in the last couple of years. That really caught the attention of everyone. Of course that's not just my department, it's Aiken County and the CSRA, as well. I think that speaks volumes to what kind of violence can occur. The equipment we purchased, I believe, is because we have to be proactive and one step ahead.”
Thomas said one of the biggest challenges that his department faces is training and the amount of training required for just fire and police officers.
“It's just phenomenal, the numbers we have to keep up with,” he said. “When we mix SWAT on top of that, that's special weapons topics we have to stay abreast of, that's even more taxing on those guys who do it. You look around the country, at a newspaper or get on the Internet and you see the events going on. They're not the bigger metropolitan areas – they're going to be in small and medium sized areas where people just don't have any control over it.”
Thomas said his officers do not train for the possibility of something happening – they train that it will happen.
Not only do the officers at North Augusta Public Safety train and learn the floor plans of schools, but they also train for commercial properties and churches. Thomas said the reason for this is that tactics have also changed throughout the years.
“If we go back and look at Columbine, where the police officers waited on the SWAT team to get there and some shots were still being fired,” he said. “Today those tactics have gone out the window. Today, to us, if there is a shooting, we have to send a patrol officer to that threat. We don't wait for additional officers to arrive. We are going to localize and identify that threat and try to keep them isolated to a particular area. That's how it has changed so much. The majority of our guys are involved in SWAT so they need to be trained on where that active shooter is and how to get to them.”
One scenario that Thomas said he has handled in just the past two weeks was at a retirement home.
“That brings us multiple issues, and when I say that I mean the amount of people, the entrances, exits, the people that go in and out, the medication that's there, and other things,” he said. “It could just happen anywhere. Another place is some of the churches we have. We have multiple levels, and that's a big concern.”
Thomas doesn't want to paint everything as being “doom and gloom,” but he knows that he is responsible for citizen's safety.
“In my position, the weight of the city is on my shoulders,” he said. “We have to be prepared in the event that something like that happens. ... It's ever-present on my mind; the layouts of the buildings, the positions, the fire plans and all of those things have to be taken into account. My biggest responsibility in the City of North Augusta is to ensure that every person and merchant feels safe. That's paramount when we talk about a safe city, because people are going to come here, play here and children are going to feel safe here. That's a part of what we provide the residents of North Augusta – a safe and comfortable place.”
In today's world, crime isn't relegated to just something that can physically happen – it's also electronic.
One thing that North Augusta Public Safety is working on advancing throughout the year is its presence in social media. This will be on Twitter (@NorthAugustaDPS) and on Facebook. This allows the department to receive tips and instantly pass out information on traffic accidents and other incidents.
“That provides another avenue for people to check,” Thomas said. “We're in an age now where people are on their iPhones and checking social media. It's a two-way communication and that works for a lot of people. I feel that we've come to a point where we need to involve ourselves on Facebook, Twitter and other sites. We need to be aware of those. On Twitter we can let people know about fires, road closures, weather conditions and those kinds of things.”
Thomas also pointed out that he didn't know Snapchat existed until recently.
“We kind of stumbled upon that thing,” he said. “It's ever-evolving and the world of law enforcement is going to change. It has changed so much in the 30 years I've been involved with it. There are computers in cars now, when I started they gave me a revolver and a map and a ‘See ya.'”
Doing everything possible
Lt. Tim Thornton, Public Safety's spokesman, said the department is doing everything they can do.
“We assume most departments are looking at each other and saying, ‘Yeah, all of these towns didn't think it could happen to them and we need to be ready,'” he said. “Then they take a little bit more of an aggressive approach. Here, we sit at our command staff table and have said, ‘It's going to happen in North Augusta,' and we need to assume that we need to train for a particular day. You can think something is going to happen and not really change your behavior, but when you know it's coming and that test is going to happen you change your approach.”
Thornton said some of the scenarios are “crazy” or “morbid,” but necessary.
“It's impossible for us to predict the future and to say, ‘This is what we need to train for,'” he said. “What we are trying to do is train and come up with scenarios. Active shooter classes are excellent tools that put us in those situations with the adrenaline flowing, the pressure and stress, the noises and everything that is going on. That helps us to be better prepared. Having the floor plans and going into these places – there's something to be said about home-field advantage.”
Thomas and Thornton have both said not to believe their confidence in execution means that they believe they can prevent any sort of tragedy in North Augusta.
“I don't think there is a chief or sheriff in the country that will tell you that we can prevent something from happening,” Thomas said. “Unless you're a mind reader, and I'm not one of those.”
Public Safety has also been lucky to have the support of the City leaders in providing them “everything within reason,” according to Thomas.
“I think it's a tip of the hat to those guys who govern this city and recognize what could happen,” he said. “Public safety is a priority, and people are going to have to feel safe here.”
Scott Rodgers is the news editor at the North Augusta Star and has been with the paper since January 2013 after previously working at the Aiken Standard. Follow him on Twitter @NAStarRodgers.