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Fairbanksans see changes in life in a post-Sept. 11 world

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Posted: Sunday, September 11, 2011 8:01 am | Updated: 1:27 pm, Wed Jan 16, 2013.

• Editor's Note: For our complete coverage of the Sept. 11 events, visit newsminer.com/sept11

FAIRBANKS - A lot has changed in Fairbanks in the past decade — or, more specifically, since Sept. 11, 2001.

It’s hard to imagine today, but Fairbanks International Airport used to be considered a casual Fairbanks social spot. Local residents could drive onto Fort Wainwright with almost no scrutiny. And area firefighters didn’t have the ability to talk to police on the radio.

Along with many other things, that all changed soon after the terrorist attacks. Many of the conditions that Fairbanks-area residents are accustomed to today are a response to the new world created by the attacks.

Probably the most striking changes are at the airport. The screening procedures, which were previously monitored by airlines, are now handled by about 85 local Transportation Security Administration employees.

Congress created the TSA to tighten airport security after the attacks, and local employees with the federal agency have implemented a multi-layer security approach to screen about 400,000 passengers and their luggage each year. Each must present an ID and boarding pass to get through security, and every bag is screened and checked for firearms or explosives.

The TSA workforce also includes officers who evaluate passengers for suspicious behavior and dogs for detecting possible bombs, local TSA director Tom Studler said.

Fairbanks airport spokeswoman Angie Spear said the changes are necessary, but she remembers when the atmosphere at the airport was decidedly more casual.

After a routine pass through a metal detector, pretty much anybody in town could go to the airport bar for a few cocktails, Spear said, or just sit by the windows and watch planes take off and land. There were few lines and no ominous warnings for people who parked their cars outside on the curb a few minutes too long.

Studler agreed that there’s a different vibe at the airport but said he’s confident that local TSA employees are balancing convenience and security.

“I can remember back in the day you’d come and get your ticket, you’d go right to the airplane and get on,” he said. “We don’t live in an environment where you can do that anymore.”

A new military role

The conditions at military bases have also changed significantly. Civilians entering Fort Wainwright or Eielson Air Force Base must now go through a formal check-in process to enter the installations, and both have been enclosed with a prominent steel fence.

Maurice Fischer, the Fort Wainwright directorate of emergency services, said the post remains open to the community but with more screening than in the past.

Deployments from local military bases have become almost routine in the past decade, but there was a long stretch when a soldier stationed at Fort Wainwright or Eielson Air Force Base could expect to remain home. Before Iraq and Afghanistan, Fischer said, no troops had been deployed to an overseas conflict since the Vietnam War.

That’s reflected in the preparation that was common in the 1990s. Fischer said soldiers were still focused on “Soviet-era training” a decade or so ago — planning for a major war against traditional foes. The homemade bombs that have dominated the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — dubbed improvised explosive devices by the military — were barely considered.

“I don’t think most soldiers even knew what an IED was back then,” Fischer said.

Today, detecting and avoiding IEDs dominates much of the training at Fort Wainwright, particularly among the 4,000 troops in the locally based Stryker brigade. Even the Stryker vehicles — highly maneuverable armored fighting machines — are a product of new warfare conditions.

Money floods in

The creation of the federal Department of Homeland Security has also brought significant federal funds for equipment and training to the area.

David Gibbs, the manager of the Fairbanks North Star Borough’s emergency management department, said money for equipment and personnel began to arrive as early as 2002.

From fiscal years 2004 to 2010, he said, nearly $3.3 million in grant funds passed through the borough, mostly to improve communications and hazardous materials response.

Grants helped the city add three additional firefighters for five-year spans, along with 20 internships at local fire departments and the University of Alaska Fairbanks fire science program to boost local emergency response. A grant-funded borough homeland security manager oversaw equipment purchases and training from 2005-08.

Gibbs said the skills of local emergency responders, particularly haz-mat crews, have improved dramatically in the past decade. Last month, for example, the delivery of a mysterious white powder to congressional offices at the Federal Building sparked an immediate response by hazardous materials teams, police, Alaska State Troopers and the FBI.

Although the substance was later determined to be harmless concrete mix, Gibbs said the reaction to a possible threat probably wouldn’t have been so smooth a decade ago.

“I think there’s a recognition is that there needs to be a higher level of security,” Gibbs said. “We take security more seriously than we used to.”

He said the new training is also a benefit in some emergencies that have nothing to do with terrorism, like earthquake response or wildfires.

Federal funds also paid for roughly 100 new radios for police and firefighters, which were designed to allow emergency personnel from different departments to communicate with each other.

University Fire Chief Doug Schrage said that fully utilizing all that new equipment is an ongoing process and that local agencies are still far from having seamless communications.

But there is a strong desire to work together with other agencies, he said. When UAF has emergency drills with law enforcement and emergency medical personnel — such as a simulated attack on campus buildings — the exercises have a genuine sense of urgency.

Schrage said the changes since the 9/11 attacks are particularly noticeable among young firefighters entering UAF’s fire science programs. The losses suffered by firefighters put a spotlight on the profession, and Schrage said the number of people interested in a firefighting career has soared.

He also said firefighters have a strengthened kinship since the Twin Towers fell.

“Probably more than any other social group or industry, we really haven’t forgotten,” Schrage said.

Contact staff writer Jeff Richardson at 459-7518.

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