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Rockland County, NY: Public Safety Initiatives for A Secure Future
Author: John Christopher Fine
Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content
Photos by the author.
Public safety has not always kept pace with dramatic changes in technology. Young people with advanced computer skills using inexpensive cell phones and video games seem miles ahead of the average police officer whose analog radios with limited range and interoperability, make it difficult, and at times impossible, to communicate with other agencies let along their own command. This in an era when clandestine federal operations, funded with billions of dollars of taxpayer money, have the most modern and cutting edge technology available.
In law enforcement the adage that ‘old is new’ has come around. Community policing, with the patrol officer on the beat and the squad detective whose career is spent in the same precinct working with the same people in the same community, is now a revelation. That police officers know their community and that the community knows the officers assigned to protect them has returned to the vanguard of police work.
A squad detective knows the good and the bad and develops informants as well as community trust. A beat patrol officer can better intervene in a domestic dispute or handle a mentally unstable citizen that is known to that officer better than a stranger. Trust and honor, friendship and service have always been key elements in motivation for public service especially in law enforcement. In the final analysis, first responders are local police officers, fire and EMS personnel not Washington based experts with high-tech equipment.
Putting local law enforcement and public safety first, therefore, through grant initiatives and equipment improvements, has helped modernize local police and public safety technology. One of the best examples of police and public safety modernization has taken place in Rockland County, New York. The large metropolitan region encompasses the Tappan Zee Bridge, a major artery across the Hudson River, river front, large urban cities with shopping malls, and borders with neighboring New Jersey in close proximity to New York City.
“Rockland County has the third largest population of people of the Jewish faith in the world. Our total population is 310,000 citizens. Of those, 92,000 are Jewish. We are third in size after Israel and New York City. As part of New York’s Zone 4, that includes Orange and Sullivan Counties, all police agencies take anti-terrorism seriously.” Sheriff Louis Falco III, said.
“We constantly talk to our citizens and do surveys of buildings. We help them safeguard buildings. One example is to keep their dumpster on the other side of the parking lot instead of against a building. If someone plants an explosive in the dumpster it will not damage the building. Every county bus has a sign that reads, ‘See something, say something.’” Sheriff Falco added.
“Our bomb unit responds to every incident. We have three bomb detection dogs and five bomb technicians. We can respond to two incidents at one time. We have two bomb incident trucks and two robots,” he added.
Right: Sheriff Louis Falco (suit) with Detective Keith Latarski with one of the department's bomb incident response trucks.
Sheriff Louis Falco III is an example of dedicated leadership in the local community. His parents lived and worked in the Rockland town of Stony Point. His father was in construction but served as the town’s part-time constable before Stony Point organized their own police force. Sheriff Falco attended North Rockland High School where he was a three sport athlete. When he graduated he attended community college. He was offered a job with the Rockland County Sheriff’s Department when he was 19 years old as a dispatcher. “When I turned twenty I became a deputy sheriff in the civil division. That was in January 1980.” By December that year Falco was selected from the civil service list to become a full time patrol officer.
He spent his career in the Rockland County Sheriff’s Office as head of the marine unit, as a detective, then sergeant, lieutenant with various responsibilities for administration, then in charge of detectives until he was promoted to captain in 2007. Selected as Chief of the Police Division in 2009, he ran for election as sheriff in 2012. “I’m the fiftieth sheriff of Rockland County and the first Italian-American ever elected,” he said, justly proud of his life-long community service.
Sheriff Falco is also justly proud of the new $8 million 9-1-1 communications center that is slated to begin operations in September 2013. “I just went before the legislature and asked for seven new dispatchers. When it is fully operational the new center will dispatch fire, police, and EMS county wide. There will be better supervision. We will have emergency medical dispatch. When someone calls in with a life threatening emergency one dispatcher will direct police, EMS, and fire responders immediately and another will calm the caller and give instructions for emergency lifesaving measures,” Sheriff Falco explained.
Rockland County, New York Sheriff Louis Falco, III in his office in New City.
In addition to the state of the art dispatch center Rockland County has spent $30 million on an interoperative radio system for fire, EMS, and police. “When completed the radio system and the 9-1-1 Communications Center will come under the jurisdiction of the Sheriff. The legislature has given approval for hiring new dispatchers and supervisors. We will be operational by September 1. I would like to see the Center dedicated on September 11. It is a life-saving center and by dedicating it on 9/11 we will honor those from Rockland County and others that lost their lives or were injured in the World Trade Center tragedy. We are consulting about that now,” the Sheriff said.
With the addition of 7 new positions, the Center will have a total of 25 dispatchers and supervisors. “The new room has a dispatch control that can be raised or lowered. It has been found that in high stress situations a dispatcher is better off standing. There is a button on the console so that the screen and controls come up to the dispatcher’s height. The supervisor’s work station enables a view of a large monitor. The supervisor can see what is going on with four screens at a time or can enlarge one screen for a major incident,” Sheriff Falco explained.
Planning for the new dispatch center included hardening the building in the event of natural catastrophe. “The Dispatch Center doubles as a ‘brain trust’ or emergency relief center. If hurricanes like Sandy or Irene strike our area again, the Center’s new four-person training room will double as a 9-1-1 center for any police department in Rockland County. If a local police or fire facility is destroyed the training room, with four stations, can double for them and support operations for all fire, police and EMS in the county,” the Sheriff added.
Rockland County Sheriff’s Department has four distinct divisions: civil, corrections, communications, and police. Sheriff Falco is responsible for administering a $60 million annual budget and 400 employees. The sheriff’s police division is dispatched from their headquarters in New City, New York. “We’ve just spent $200,000 on our communications here. It is all digital with touch screen technology. We have a new 700 megahertz radio system with interoperability with any police, fire or EMS in the county. Each of these radios costs $5,000,” Sheriff Falco said.
“When the system was being designed Motorola provided a 400 megahertz system. As technology improved they upped it to 700. Every portable unit and every car radio has a red button. If an officer hits it, it tells exactly where the radio is. When I use my radio they know it is me as Sheriff and they know where I am. We are on the cutting edge of technology,” he added.
The new Center will serve as operations control in the event of a disaster. Operations and supervisory personnel will convene at the Center. The Center has hardening devices to protect it from natural disasters or terrorist attack.
Sheriff’s bomb technicians, like Detective Keith Latarski, go to the FBI-run school in Huntsville, Alabama for training and re-certification. “We have an arson investigation team. We do all the arson investigations in Rockland County and are part of the Bomb-Arson Tracking System. It is a federal program that compiles a nationwide data base. Let’s say an arsonist has set fires in the state of Washington. He moves to our area. The modus operandi, similarities in bomb devices, will be kicked out of the federal computers,” the Sheriff said.
The arson unit has been joined with the bomb squad. Only the Town of Clarkstown maintains its own arson investigators through the fire department. The town can call upon the sheriff’s office to use the arson dog or other resources when need arises.
“Our robots have to be re-built every year. It costs $10,000 per robot. They are both now wireless. Before if we had to go into an elevator and the cable snapped the robot would be inoperative. Each of the two robots have a camera and we are able to equip them with many things including a shotgun,” Sheriff Falco said.
“We have a take-home vehicle. We take the dogs with us. We can respond from home at any hour,” bomb unit Detective Keith Latarski said. Keith served ten years with the U.S. Army. Like Sheriff Falco, Keith was brought up in Rockland County where he attended Clarkstown South High School. His assignment was Army Special Operations and Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD). Detective Latarski left the U.S. Army as Staff Sergeant. He joined the U.S. Air Force EOD and spent two six-month tours in Iraq and remains in the reserves as a Chief Master Sergeant in EOD. Keith’s father was a sergeant in the NYPD.
“Last year we responded to 54 calls,” this twelve-year veteran of the Rockland County Sheriff’s Department said. “We have a Total Containment Vessel (TCV). The main purpose is if we have to transport something that cannot be disposed of safely on site, because it is in a home or in a crowded area, we use the TCV. The robot can put it in the containment vessel and it can be sealed in remotely. It is important since we have to travel through local streets to transport the device to where it can be handled,” Detective Latarski explained.
Calls for the bomb squad can be routine, like someone reporting fireworks or serious when a bomb threat is reported and suspicious package is found. “Every time someone gets a bomb threat we are out the door. We participated in the seizure of a large container of fireworks. Detective Melissa Johnston’s dog alerted on a storage unit. The Spring Valley Police Department called us out. It was the largest seizure of fireworks in the county,” Detective Latarski reported.
“We had a recent call to assist Orangetown police in a state park. An underage kid was exploding pipe bombs. We had to render the devices safe. Federal Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms officers were involved. It turned out the juvenile was wanted for bombings in New Jersey. We also assist West Point in ordnance disposal,” he added.
Training for certification as a bomb technician requires basic Hazardous Material courses. The FBI school in Alabama is a six-week course. Graduation from the school certifies bomb technicians. Recertification training is every three years. Training and equipment is expensive and often beyond the range of local budgets.
“There are grant programs specifically for us. Federal and state programs pay for training. There are program reviews. If we are told we need something, then there is grant money available that can be applied for. We get New York State grant money for the bomb and arson dogs. Our specialized equipment is expensive. Each robot costs $150,000, the TCV is $150,000. We bought bomb suits that cost $35,000 each. All of these expenditures came from grant money,” Detective Latarski explained.
Detective Keith Latarski and Sheriff Louis Falco (blue suit) with one of the robots inside a bomb response truck
Sheriff’s Lieutenant Tony Costa supervises the Safe Cities Program for radiological events. “The program is designed to protect from radiological hazards. Pagers are in use by patrol officers and bomb squad detectives to alert to any danger,” Lieutenant Costa said.
“We are present with our bomb dogs at major events. The July Fourth fireworks drew huge crowds. There were forty officers and two bomb techs with our dogs. We have to be aware and alert after the bombing at the Boston Marathon. Our unit supports police presence at these events,” Detective Latarski explained.
Grants and asset forfeitures go a long way to saving local tax payers the burden of expenditures for high-tech equipment. In the end it is the patrol officer and first responders that have responsibility for recognizing, reporting and handling an event. Administrative preparation, supervision and support, enhanced training and communications with the return to community policing protect citizens from crime and terrorism in a world beset by violence and natural calamity.
John Christopher Fine served as Senior Assistant District Attorney in New York County. He was the Assistant Attorney General In Charge, Organized Crime Task Force and served various state and federal law enforcement and investigative agencies. He is the author of 24 books and remains a consultant to law enforcement on national security issues and organized crime, and a frequent contributor to 9-1-1 Magazine.