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Wednesday, November 25,2009

Up on the rooftop

Volunteers monitor security from Lansing’s rooftops during holiday festivities

by Eric Freeman

While many attending Lansing’s 25th annual Silver Bells in the City had trouble just seeing past the person standing in front of them, security volunteers loomed on the rooftops of the city with a front row seat to more than just floats and fireworks.


The Amateur Radio Public Service Corps partnered with the Lansing Police and state police to assist emergency response personnel and ensure security during Silver Bells. The ham radio corps is a trained volunteer group specializing in emergency communications during special events, natural disasters and security threats.


The team has traditionally worked strictly through radio communications, but this year they provided amateur television, or ATV — recorded video that can be transmitted over radio waves — to provide “live situation awareness.”


Friday night, the corps members monitored the ATV from the rooftops of several downtown buildings, including in the sky on top of Lansing City Hall.


“ATV gives us close-up views of accidents that can be used to notify emergency first response crews or other authorities,” said Trent Atkins, Lansing Fire Department’s chief of emergency management.


The volunteers and officials carry a heavy responsibility during the annual festivities. Each year, about 120,000 people attend Silver Bells in an area measuring less than half of a square mile, according to the Lansing Fire Department. But Atkins said emergency personnel only receive six to eight minor medical incidents on average, most of which are twisted ankles or health complications unrelated to the event.


“When it comes to law enforcement, I can’t remember the last problem we’ve had,” Atkins said.


From the rooftop of City Hall, Ron Harger and J. Irvin Bates monitored the streets below with their personal camcorders, watching for any signs of a medical problem or disturbance of the peace.


“It’s been quiet, real quiet,” Harger said during Friday’s festivities. “Everybody seems to be on their best behavior.”


Harger said that every year, emergency personnel respond to calls of missing children after the fireworks display as the crowd starts to disperse.


Harger, a network engineer by profession, has volunteered five years in a row for the corps' security watch over Silver Bells. For Bates, a nursing student at Baker College, it was an exciting first-time experience that he said he hopes to relive in the future.


“We aim the camera at the parade route and feed the video back to the security command center. If we see something that needs attention, we’ll radio it in and the authorities will take care of it.” Harger said.


“There are ATV posts on three rooftops around the city,” Bates added.


Arriving by bus at 4 p.m., Harger, Bates and the rest of the team were dropped off at their locations to set up their cameras and watch as the crowds began flooding the streets. While the two said all looked calm from the rooftops above, the Community Emergency Response Team, or CERT, saw a much different picture from ground level. CERT, Atkins said, is another volunteer organization that oversees traffic control during and after the event.


“It’s been pretty crazy down here,” said a CERT volunteer who declined to give a name. “People are running in between the floats to get to the other side of the street. There are a lot of parents with strollers that are yelling for people to move out of their way or panicking about their children’s safety. I’m really surprised. The energy is worse than I expected it would be.”


Amid the business of the parade, one mother plowed her way through the crowd screaming that she needed to get out and that her young daughter was not safe in the jam-packed streets. An hour before the parade made its way to the Capitol, an automobile accident at the corner of Shiawassee Street and Capitol Avenue left one woman hospitalized. Police officers and medical personnel at the scene declined to comment on the nature of the injury.


“Things have calmed down for the most part since the parade and fireworks ended,” the anonymous CERT volunteer said. “All we really have to watch out for now is people walking in the way of the horse carriages or vehicles trying to drive on closed roads.”


“You’re always going to have some minor problems when you get this many people gathered in a small area,” Atkins said. “If we’re keeping everything under control that can be kept under control, then we’re doing our jobs.”

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