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Anxiety level still low among most Utahns

With the nation at war and an "orange" or "high" alert issued from the national department of Homeland Security, Utah's public safety officials say they expect sales of duct tape to remain high but the anxiety level of Utahns to remain low.

"There is no specific threat to the state," said Verdi White, a deputy commissioner for the Utah Department of Public Safety who oversees homeland security. "The whole key to what we do is based upon the threat. If we feel there is an increased threat, we will turn our attention there."

The alert does set some public safety wheels in motion, although most of what is triggered will not likely be noticed by the public.

For example, under the "orange" alert, a state emergency operations center in the bowels of the Capitol is being staffed and "intelligence" from federal, state and local sources is being monitored, White said.

Members of the state's Homeland Security Task Force — which includes various arms of the Department of Public Safety, the local Federal Bureau of Investigation office, the state's Joint Terrorism Task Force, Salt Lake City Police and the Salt Lake County Sheriff's offices — is meeting regularly during the day to review that intelligence, White said. The protocol is similar to daily briefings held during the Olympics, he said.

The alert also triggers some specific protocols for patrol officers in both state and local agencies. Many officers are now on 12-hour shifts, and vacation or travel is restricted. Officers are being asked to do "directed" patrol shifts, taking a closer look at public utilities such as dams, water treatment facilities and power stations. They'll also keep an eye on public buildings and events that draw large numbers of people.

Sandy police are adding additional foot patrols so that officers are out where the people are, Sandy Sgt. Michelle Burnette said.

Officials do want citizens to be aware of what is going on around them and to call police if they see anything out of the ordinary or something that makes them uncomfortable. Officers, they say, won't mind the extra calls.

"We would rather investigate 100 cases that were unfounded than not to have been called on the one that we should have been called on," Salt Lake County Sheriff's undersheriff Jeff Carr said.

One of the few places Utahns will feel directly affected by an increased threat level is at the airport and on other sources of public transportation.

Wednesday night, Trax passengers also noticed increased security on the Salt Lake County light-rail line. Commuters also heard unusual instructions to be sure to collect all their packages and bags and to report immediately unattended items, and extra police officers were positioned at several stations.

Under an "orange" threat level, the national Transportation Security Administration requires increased security measures, including random searches of vehicles entering the airport, bomb dogs and police officers in the terminal along with closer scrutiny of passengers, said Earl Morris, federal security director for the Salt Lake International Airport.

The precautions may add several minutes to check-in time at the airport but should not otherwise pose a significant impact, Morris added.

Also under the threat, no parking is allowed within 300 feet of airport terminals and searches are being conducted on cars in the upper levels of the parking garage. Additionally, popular jogging and biking paths near the airport have also been closed. The airport's observation deck is closed, too.

"(The alert) has a tendency to frighten people," Morris acknowledged. "The resources expended are substantial. I think people will come and find it's a very efficient and secure system."

Morris and White say the best advice they can offer is: Be alert and aware but don't make significant changes in daily life.

Utahns seem to be reacting at both ends of the spectrum of concern.

Some local hardware and home improvement stores report brisk sales of basic emergency supplies like duct tape, plastic sheeting and batteries — items the national Department of Homeland Security has suggested might help Americans protect themselves from biological threats.

"We've got almost nothing left," said Ray, an assistant manager at the Lowe's Home Improvement warehouse in Murray, who asked that his last name not be used. "We usually carry 300 or 400 rolls."

Lowe's has hustled to keep up with demand over the past three weeks when the country went to it's first "orange" alert after President Bush stepped up his pre-war rhetoric, Ray said. And the story is the same at the Lowe's in West Jordan.

"We're definitely hearing about it from customers," said Cody, an assistant manager there. "They are pretty much worried that they'll actually need to use it."

One elderly woman, he said, bought five boxes of the 25-foot by 100-foot and 400-foot sheeting and a large amount of tape.

"She was scared out of her mind," Kennington said. "I'm not worried myself."

Duct-tape sales aside, Kennington may be in the majority.

"I'm living my life just the same," said Ruth Dyer, a 51-year resident of Fairpark. "I'm aware that it's an orange alert and it does concern me, but what can we really do anyway as an individual?"

Well-stocked with nearly a year of food supplies, Dyer said she'll depend on her neighbors for help if there is a need. But she and others say that Salt Lake City seems an unlikely target for terrorists.

"Maybe if we lived in Washington, D.C., or New York City, or something like that," said Barbara Eaton, 63, a retired defense worker who lives in West Valley City and said she hasn't stocked up on even basic emergency supplies. "I don't have any family or friends that are going as far as getting duct tape and gas masks."

White says it's true that threat levels are relative to place and circumstance.

"We have to look at the wheres and who's affected," he said. "It is different depending on where you live in the country and what kind of risk you have. What's red in New York City is different than what's red here."

And he added, "I think people just need to live their lives."


E-MAIL: jdobner@desnews.com