Anti-Terror Exercise Along Ohio River   6/16/2011

By Kathy Lynn Gray - The Columbus Dispatch

NEWPORT, Ohio - Black Hawk helicopters whirred in the air, bomb-sniffing dogs checked tractor-trailer trucks for explosives and a Homeland Security command center monitored every thing in the shadow of a power plant.

But the 400 security and law-enforcement officers assembled yesterday along the Ohio River in southeastern Ohio weren't monitoring a terrorist threat.

They were practicing what to do if one really surfaces.

The daylong exercise was designed to reduce the chance that terrorists could take out the state's gas pipelines and the area's transportation system, both along the river and the roads.

"Nothing is more important than protecting individual lives, but if the bad guys took out the transportation system, it would have a tremendous impact on the economy," said Donald Barker, the Transportation Security Administration official in charge of the exercise.

Barker began organizing the yearly event three years ago so federal, state and local agencies could practice working together.

Seventy agencies from Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia took part yesterday, including the Ohio National Guard, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Columbus Fire Division bomb squad, the State Highway Patrol, the FBI, the Office of Homeland Security, and local sheriff and police departments.

The headquarters for the Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response exercise - commonly called VIPR - was at the Willow Island Locks and Dam in Newport, which is near Marietta and about 130miles southeast of Columbus. Across the river in West Virginia is the Pleasants Power Station coal-burning plant.

The exercise covered 5,000 square miles that includes dams, gas-compressor stations for gas pipelines and power plants.

No agency worked on its own: Personnel mingled so they could draw on others' expertise and equipment, and learn one another's communication systems.

Some flew in Black Hawks to check potential targets, such as pipelines and railroad yards, from the air. Others rode in Coast Guard boats along the Ohio River, checking bridges and other structures from a security perspective.

At an I-77 rest stop just north of Marietta, some watched computer screens as cameras examined the undersides of semi-trucks. Columbus explosives handler Rick Harding and his dog Marley circled trucks to check for explosives.

"It's good practice to work together with the equipment and work the kinks out so that, whenever it's needed, everything's running like it should," said Harding, who was participating in his second VIPR exercise with the Transportation Security Administration.

The media, too, were part of the exercise through their reporting, said Rob Glenn, executive director of Ohio Homeland Security.

"We want the bad guys to be aware that we are constantly being vigilant," Glenn said. "We are staying vigilant, and we're encouraging the public to be vigilant, too."

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