Helicopter Makes A Close Landing

Plans assessed for potential area disaster response

Wheeling Intelligencer
16 June 2011
By J.W. Johnson, Jr. Staff Writer

PIKE ISLAND LOCKS AND DAM - After making two quick circles around the Pike Island Locks and Dam on Wednesday, a Blackhawk helicopter landed on one of the dam's piers, the first such landing that has ever been conducted on a dam in the Pittsburgh lock district.

It took only five minutes from the time the helicopter appeared from behind the Ohio hills to the time a team from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dismounted onto the pier, a number that will now serve as the precedent in the event such a landing needs to occur because of a security threat or natural disaster.

The landing was part of Transportation Security Administration exercises held Wednesday at various spots along the Ohio River, including Pike Island and Hannibal Locks and Dam. According to Steve Davidson, chief of security and law enforcement for the Army Corps of Engineers, the exercises were held to develop plans to prepare for emergency situations and to allow local, state and federal agencies to better understand the area.

"We are doing assessments of all of the infrastructure that operates along the river," he said. "We are assessing what our response times are for many individual areas and scenarios."

While the locks and dams are part of that infrastructure, so too are steel mills and power plants and other factories, including those owned by American Electric Power, Appalachian Power and DuPont, as well as the railroad systems that follow the river as it winds south. Davidson said the ability to bring a team to such areas via helicopter not only allows immediate response, but also takes some of the pressure off of local emergency response teams.

"If we can have airborne assets to an area in a quick fashion, we ensure that there isn't a drain on local assets," he said.

Davidson said being able to explore the areas from above allows him and his team to see potential weaknesses in certain areas or structures. He said that information is taken and considered when devising a plan of action that not only serves the local locks and dams but is shared with locks and dams around the country.

"If we can determine that there is a weakness, we figure out how that weakness can be exploited, much the same way an enemy would," he said. "That way, we are always one step ahead."

In addition to the Army Corp of Engineers, officials from the Federal Air Marshals, U.S. Coast Guard, Federal Emergency Management Agency and the FBI were on hand to take part in the exercises, which covered nearly 5,000 miles throughout Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia.

Local officials from the Ohio County Office of Emergency Management, Wheeling Fire Department, Ohio County Sheriff's Department and Wheeling Police Department were also on hand to speak with those federal representatives and share information. Farther south, Wetzel County Sheriff James Hoskins took part in the exercises at Hannibal.

"In meeting with those local assets, we are able to draw from their expertise, and it allows us to have an inventory of what is available to us in the event of an emergency," Davidson said.