In Sarasota, train for the worst, hope for the best

Sgt. Daniel Weinsberg trains by watching footage of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Sgt. Bryan Graham practices by building bombs with Play-Doh instead of C-4. Officer Tammy Featherstone role plays a scenario where she’s talking to a suicidal veteran with traumatic brain injury.

When they aren’t training, they’re confronting protesters, removing explosive devices and rescuing hostages, always dealing with a high level of danger, to the public and themselves. They accept the risks and seem to enjoy their work.

Just another day at the office for three specialized units of the Sarasota Police Department—Emergency Response, Explosive Materials and Crisis Negotiation. The three team leaders brought their equipment and expertise to the Citizen’s Academy in the third of a series of 12 classes that give civilians a glimpse of life behind the badge.

First up, Sgt. Weinsberg, team leader for the the department’s contingent on the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office Emergency Response Team. The ERT deploys during times of emergency or crisis when there is a high probability of criminal or civil unrest. Think hurricanes, riots and, yes, weapons of mass destruction. It consists of three teams from the sheriff’s office and one from the city, 10 officers per team.

Viewers who watched protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle will remember cordons of police with body armor called turtle gear wading into the crowds. “That’s what we don’t do,” Weinsberg said. The ERU doesn’t even suit up if it isn’t necessary to preserving life because that image alone can trigger a backlash.

Many of the drills involve learning how to not to respond when provoked. “As one of our training sergeants said, ‘You don’t want to be on TV.’”

As leader of the Explosive Materials Unit (EMU), or bomb squad, Sgt. Graham and team have a different but equally perilous situation to defuse. They use a host of equipment, from protective suits that weigh 90 lbs. to the Remotec ANDROS F6A robot. It has a telescoping camera, a claw to position an X-ray device and the ability to climb stairs.

The team’s primary job is to remove the bomb to a remote location and detonate it, often with a charge of highly pressurized water. No Danger UXB guesswork about which wires to cut first. But in the end, someone has to get close to the explosive device . . . if only to pick up the pieces for FBI analysis.

Officer Tammy Featherstone, a member of the Crisis Negotiation Unit (CNU), deals with another kind of danger—threats to the lives of hostages and potential suicide victims. The CNU deploys two negotiators to every incident. The first talks to the suspect, the second takes notes and feeds that information to intelligence officers.

Her goal is a peaceful end to the situation. “We want to bring everyone home.”

Next: SWAT and the dive team.

Jeff Widmer is the author of The Spirit of Swiftwater and other works.

Sgt. Bryan Graham and the equipment used by the Sarasota Police Department's Explosive Materials Unit. The robot used to remove ordinance sits on the far right. On the screen, an X-ray of a victim-activated bomb.

Sgt. Bryan Graham and the equipment used by the Sarasota Police Department’s Explosive Materials Unit. The robot used to remove ordinance sits on the far right. On screen, an X-ray of a victim-activated bomb.

 

Emergency? Who You Gonna Call?

Payphones have gone the way of steam engines and spats. Concern about security has not. Colleges have responded by installing emergency call stations known for their blue lights. Adults old enough to remember rotary phones can use their landlines and lifelines.

Leave it to the Internet generation to develop an alternative.

Security apps for smartphones have become a booming business. They provide a wide range of functions, from receiving emergency notifications to connecting you with commercial monitoring teams through a subscription service. Apple’s App Store alone lists 98 apps in the emergency-alert category.

What’s your best bet if you want to use your smartphone as a mobile substitute for blue-light boxes? Here’s a short list of apps, some free, some not, starting with passive software and advancing toward interactive systems.

  • CodeRED Mobile Alert. Designed to keep you informed, this app taps into the national CodeRED Emergency Notification System to alter subscribers of public safety issues.
  • Emergency. The utility allows the direct dialing to four main emergency services (general, fire, police, medical).
  • SOS Panic Button. This app features a large panic button that, when pressed, will use the phone’s GPS tracking feature to notify friends and family of your location by telephone and email.
  • Bluelight. The app notifies your friends and family when you don’t arrive at your destination as planned.
  • SOS Response. This is for users who want their smartphones to act more like hardwired home alarm and blue-light systems. The app sends photos and GPS information to a monitoring team, who then alert responders.
  • MyForce. Another subscription-based service, this app sends reports to alarm monitors who, the developer says, will connect to 911 dispatchers “after an emergency is validated.”

A word of caution about the technology. Anyone can use a blue-light emergency call button or home-alarm system. Only those who can afford a smartphone and the monthly fee can access some of these subscription services. And what happens if your phone can’t find a signal?

 

Taking the temperature of weather apps

With much of the Gulf of Mexico and the Eastern seaboard in the grip of hurricane season, residents might want to update their iPads with the latest weather apps. (The iPad doesn’t come with a basic weather app, unlike its smaller sibling, the iPhone.) Mashable’s Elizabeth Woodard has a few suggestions.

For basic information in an uncluttered display, Magical Weather presents a week’s worth of temperatures in a transparent pane over an animated background. Users can swipe to retrieve an hourly forecast.

For all the bells and whistles, Intellicast HD displays a full 10-day forecast with charts, graphs, sunrise and sunset times, moon phases, a radar picture, storm cell tracking, wind direction and a weather blog.

For customizable graphs, Seasonality Go shows users a series of screens they populate with weather data. Users can move and resize the panes with forecasts and maps until they find the one they want.

Some apps, like WeatherBug and The Weather Channel, are also available for iPhone and Android devices.

Now if they’d only keep the roof from leaking.