June 24, 2008

Sheriff Unveils New Device

By Matthew Watkins, The Eagle, Bryan, Texas

Jun. 24--Brazos County Sheriff Chris Kirk said he never thought he would see a time when he would worry about potential chemical attacks.

But as he watched three deputies wearing oxygen masks and plastic suits that resembled trash bags traipsing around a wooded area behind the sheriff's office in Bryan, he said was thrilled that the county now is a little more prepared in case such a strike happens.

The deputies are members of the newly formed Sheriff's Emergency Response Group, or SERG, and were showing off their newest piece of equipment -- the Hazardous Gas and Vapor Identifier. The $38,000 machine is designed to protect deputies and help them figure out how to respond to a chemical attack, train wreck or industrial accident.

The device recently arrived at the Brazos County Sheriff's Department, which is the only agency in Texas to currently own one. It was purchased through a Public Health Preparedness Grant funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The yellow piece of machinery looks like a slightly oversized handheld vacuum. If an attack or accident involving harmful chemicals occurs, members of the SERG dressed in protective suits would use the device to identify the chemical, its concentration and the danger it poses.

"It is like six chemistry labs in all," said Mike Paulus, emergency preparedness and response coordinator for the Brazos County Health Department.

The device is needed because of what's brewed within the Texas A&M research labs, as well as trains that pass through the county that could wreck while carrying harmful chemicals. All counties should also prepare for potential terrorist attacks, Kirk said.

Other uses for the machine still are being developed. For example, officials said they could see it being used while investigating methamphetamine labs.

Paulus and Kirk helped create SERG after learning of grants available to health departments.

The 18-member team, which draws from sheriff's deputies and health department employees, is devoted to providing law enforcement and emergency care in high-risk situations, Kirk said, adding that includes terrorism response, barricaded suspects, hostages, sniper incidents, manhunts and hazardous crime scene investigations.

"I like to joke that Brazos County is the only health department with its own SWAT team," Paulus said.

The team also is trained to go into a hospital and interview sick people during an epidemic.

"What makes this unique is the partnership with the public health department," Kirk said. "I think people have an expectation for law enforcement to respond to any kind of dangerous situation," Kirk said. "Now we are able to do that."


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