By ROGER SCHNEIDER
THE GOSHEN NEWS
GOSHEN — Could it happen here?
That’s the question local emergency officials ask themselves often about violent events occurring nationwide, and then they train to prevent and respond to such situations.
On the eve of the opening of the Elkhart County 4-H Fair, a massive event that draws upwards of 300,000 people during its run, safety at the fairgrounds is a top concern.
“People need to know how well they (emergency personnel) work together in the county...” said Elkhart County Undersheriff Sean Holmes. “They are always working to keep the place safe.”
Holmes and Phil Wogoman, a fair board member who oversees security and safety at the fair, are aware of last week’s arrests at the LaPorte County fair. In that incident three teenage boys were arrested after police found a “sparkler bomb” in a backpack one of them was carrying. According to LaPorte County Prosecutor Bob Szilagyi, the teens wanted to set off the device near a carnival ride to startle onlookers. Instead, someone reportedly overheard them talking about the plot and called 911. Police responded quickly and made the arrests.
Wogoman and Holmes said they can’t reveal specific security operations at the Elkhart County fairgrounds. But Holmes said the preparations and law enforcement presence are always significant.
“We have a huge event and security of the people is the first thing I’m concerned about,” Wogoman said. “I think we are doing everything possible. We have great assets from the sheriff’s department and all our own security there. But you never know when you will have a weirdo wanting to do something.”
One of those assets at the fairgrounds will be the county’s emergency command vehicle. Holmes said 911 dispatchers from across the region volunteer to man it during the nine days of the fair. The vehicle contains communication equipment that allows dispatchers to talk to police, fire and ambulance personnel on the fairgrounds as well as the private security personnel at the fairgrounds.
In addition, Holmes said most county law enforcement agencies, plus the State Police, send officers daily to the fair.
On a mission
“Our officers are not just out there wandering around,” Holmes said.
Officers are assigned specific security tasks in designated areas of the fairgrounds. While officers may appear to be mingling with the crowd, they are constantly looking for specific threatening situations, according to Holmes.
“We take a lot of time to train our guys and brief them before they go out there because it is such a large event,” he said. Two such briefings have already been held.
The LaPorte teens are accused of hiding their home-made device in a backpack. Backpacks will still be allowed at the Elkhart County 4-H Fair.
“We are not going to get to the point of checking backpacks. But our gatekeepers keep an eye out for strange things,” Wogoman said.
Holmes said there are few people who use backpacks at the fair, so they are easy to spot. Most of the users are mothers with toddlers who need to carry extra child-care items, according to Holmes.
Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, police and fire departments have undergone extensive training on coordinating their efforts at preventing and responding to threats, according to Holmes. That training has resulted in emergency response plans being in place locally.
“If there is something we have to do, we already know who is taking over command,” he said.
As far as the LaPorte fair’s incident having an impact on the Elkhart County fair, Holmes said, “All it does is reaffirm what we are planning anyway.”
After the ceremonial ribbon cutting Friday morning, security will be in place and ready for the tens of thousands of people who will stroll the fairgrounds during the first weekend’s events. And that public response is something Wogoman, who is in his 25th year of serving on the fair board, is looking forward to.
“It’s still pretty much the same old thing,” Wogoman said. “It is a fun time. I love being out there and seeing all the people. There are friends I don’t see until they show up at the fair every year... It’s a good time.”