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Heads-up program prepares public

| Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2002

If panic and confusion are terrorists' best weapons, then education and preparedness are Westmoreland County residents' best defenses.

County Public Safety Director Richard Matason's program, "Terrorism Awareness for the Community," opens viewers' eyes to the nightmarish arsenal of toxins, viruses, bacteria, explosives, firebombs and other deadly devices that can surface unexpectedly in busy malls, thoroughfares and even homes.

Matason says the first step in self-protection is to recognize that such hazards may be present anytime, anywhere.

"But the whole purpose of what we're doing is to make us aware of what terrorism and weapons of mass destruction are all about so that we can be prepared and terrorists will have to look elsewhere."

The message was delivered Tuesday to about 40 people, including a contingent of Scouts from Youngstown Boy Scout Troop 327, at the Greater Latrobe Senior High School auditorium.

Mary Stynchula said she and her sister-in-law, Pauline Stynchula, both of Latrobe, attended "because we just like to know what's going on."

Matason explained that since the first bombing at the World Trade Center in New York in 1993, the nation "is beginning to take terrorism a lot more seriously.

"We have made changes in response to these attacks, but the next step is a question mark. We do not know where the terrorists will go next," he said. "Our best defense in this war against terrorism is awareness. And we can achieve that through education, communication and preparedness."

Most of the hour-or-so-long presentation was delivered in video format, with a brief question-answer period afterward.

"This program was a spinoff of a similar program for first responders that we actually started working on last May, even before the events of Sept. 11," Matason said.

The video, which was produced with help from students studying audio-visual technologies at Greensburg Salem Senior High School, "seemed like the best way to get the word out."

The information-packed program explains that terrorist attacks are designed to inflict mass casualties, overwhelm emergency response systems, disrupt normal routines, shut down and contaminate facilities, create panic and confusion and shatter a population's faith in its government.

Though they vary in degrees of probability, he listed five major categories in which attacks may come: biological, nuclear, incendiary, chemical and explosive.

"You can remember them with the acronym "B-NICE," Matason said.

"And there's nothing to say it can't happen here in Westmoreland County, Unity Township or the city of Latrobe," said Andy Stofan, executive director of the Latrobe Area Chamber of Commerce, which sponsored last night's program.

"But citizens who are prepared are more valuable to a community than those who don't know what to do or where to go," Stofan said.

"I thought it was very informative," Cathy Krofick, executive director of the Chestnut Ridge Chapter of the American Red Cross in Latrobe, said of the program.

Krofick distributed several pamphlets the Red Cross has prepared that are aimed at helping people prepare for terrorism, create family disaster plans and even cope with the trauma, stress and anxieties that accompany major destructive events. The organization also is offering a number of safety and first-aid programs at its new headquarters at 1816 Lincoln Ave.

Matason said he plans to present similar terrorism programs in coming weeks, including one next week at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, which "will be open to the faculty, students and the public and will focus more on the county's capabilities."

Last night's program "was more about how you in the community can prepare yourself and your families not only for terrorism but for any kind of disaster," he said.

Matason urged other groups and organizations interested in viewing the video presentation to contact their local emergency management officials. "We've distributed copies to each of the 65 jurisdictions (municipalities) in the county."

As an aside, the public safety director said county hazmat personnel have responded to a total of 95 calls for possible anthrax since Oct. 12.

"All of them were negative," he said.

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