Gwinnett does its part to protect homeland

LAWRENCEVILLE - Five years ago, homeland security was a foreign concept - something that applied to Israel.

But America hadn't experienced a large-scale attack on its own soil since Pearl Harbor.

The concept became real, though, as people realized 19 hijackers boarded planes with the intent of steering them into buildings.

Within weeks, the federal government created an office of homeland security, and in 2002, the homeland security director became an official Cabinet position.

Last December, Gwinnett County's government decided to have its own homeland security department.

"It would be shame on us if we don't do it. It would be shame on us if we weren't prepared," Police Chief Charlie Walters said when the decision was announced.

Gwinnett had its own brush with Sept. 11 terrorists.

Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi, the men at the helm of the planes that crashed into the Twin Towers, spent some time in Lawrenceville and rented planes at Briscoe Field at the Gwinnett County Airport.

"I don't know who picked this spot, if it was Osama bin Laden or someone else. Obviously, we've been involved already," said Maj. Alan Doss on the day he took the job as homeland security director.

Doss wasn't involved in the immediate reaction to the attacks, except keeping the men he led on alert.

That day, the county closed Briscoe Field and the road over Buford Dam and secured the water plant and its intake at Lake Lanier. Schools were watched cautiously, and the two malls open at the time closed early.

Since then, the county has gathered a list of its most vulnerable targets. Doss won't reveal the list, but says anywhere people gather is a possibility.

"I can't predict the worst," he said. "You try to plan for things ahead of time, respond to them as much as you can."

Doss said he believes the county is safer - it certainly is better equipped and better trained, he said.

Since the creation of the federal homeland security department, police forces across the county have received grants for equipment, including a $750,000 mobile command center for the county department.

Doss said strides have also been made in communication between agencies and information sharing.

Now, he's using his resources and contacts to plan for a possible natural disaster - the pandemic flu that health experts are predicting to spread the globe.

While remembering the tragedy that changed America on Sept. 11, people should be aware of the dangers and vigilant in reporting suspicions, Doss said. Not only does that help with preventing another tragic terrorist attack, but it helps prevent everyday crime, he said.

"It's just a way of life now," he said. "The good thing is we aren't having to live through it everyday like in the Middle East."

For information on how to prepare yourself for attacks or disasters, go to www.ready.gov.