By Sarah Robbins
Robert Stewart's days were busy as the chief of the State Law Enforcement Division. After Sept. 11, 2001, his job description got much longer.
"The new twist and the new role was that state and local law enforcement were going to have to be heavily involved in the defense of the United States of America," he said.
He was leaving his home in Ballentine for work at SLED headquarters near Irmo when he got a call that a plane had hit a building in New York. He turned on the television and saw the second plane hit.
Stewart was called to the governor's office with other law enforcement officers and emergency personnel to discuss how to keep South Carolinians secure amidst such uncertainty. Electric and water companies were notified and put on high alert.
Government buildings were placed on high security.
In the weeks that followed, Stewart said, there were two key issues: learning the types of attacks to expect from terrorist groups and how to respond and building the cooperation and coordination networks among first responder groups.
"What developed over time is that the greatest priority is prevention," Stewart said. But the result, he said, is that the state is now better prepared for many things, from crime prevention to responding to emergencies.
The state created fusion centers to link state and local law enforcement with the federal government to aid in information sharing to catch potential terrorists.
Additionally, Stewart and other state law enforcement leaders from across the country began to meet with people from the FBI and CIA. Terrorists from the September 11 attacks had been in the U.S. for months; each state needed to pay attention to suspicious activity.
Stewart's titles eventually caught up with all of his additional duties. In 2003 Gov. Mark Sanford designated SLED the lead agency in counterterrorism efforts for the state.
"SLED had a lot of added responsibility," including overseeing the millions of dollars the state has received in homeland security grants, Stewart said.
During the next five years, the state received $120 million from federal grants to aid in prevention and response. "Our goal was for every jurisdiction to have the things they would need to act in a timely fashion," Stewart said.
Stewart established a statewide council of fire chiefs, sheriffs, police chiefs and the state Department of Health and Environmental Control. The council analyzed what was needed by the various disciplines to prevent terrorist attacks and to respond well if one occurred.
Response units were created for every region, from an urban search and rescue task force to an agriculture emergency response unit. And emergency responders could now communicate through a single radio system.
Incident management training also became a requirement for all law enforcement officers.
"We tried to buy things that had a dual purpose," Stewart said. "Things we could use in the event of a terrorist attack but also things that could be used in everyday law enforcement and fire fighting duties."
Stewart said people laughed at him and called it a waste when he outfitted fire and police departments with the spacesuit-like gear that protects responders from toxic materials until they were needed in 2005 when a train wreck in Graniteville leaked 60 tons of liquefied chlorine that killed nine people.
While the state continued to make plans, form teams and buy gear in the event of an attack, there also was a greater focus on prevention.
"Being part of national prevention was unheard of in this state, and many other states around the nation, and there was a lot of work to be done," Stewart said. "Where the rubber meets the road is when a police officer patrolling a neighborhood sees something suspicious and reports it."
"We've been remarkably successful in preventing attacks in the U.S., but that can change tomorrow. On September 11 there were many lives lost; there was motivation not to let it happen again. It was really a wake-up call," said Stewart, who retired in 2007 and now has his own consulting firm.