- The Washington Times - Friday, October 4, 2002

The Emergency Services Unit contains the jacks-of-all-trades in the Metropolitan Police Department.

When D.C. police need a tool to open a door to make an arrest or to lift parts of a collapsed building, they call the ESU.

"Whatever the commander on the scene needs, we try to get done," said Lt. John R. Alter, ESU commander who regularly works for the Regional Operations Command East. "We have a different support role. We have the gear that they need to get the job done."

The ESU's 22 officers are part cop, part firefighter and part mechanic. They carry guns but wear firefighters' helmets and many are volunteer firefighters.

The unit uses trucks full of heavy hydraulic and electrical tools, air bags that lift collapsed buildings and police dogs that can search for human remains.

In preparation for the April 2000 protests against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), the unit was created to remove devices that demonstrators were known to use to chain themselves together to block traffic. But the ESU has become the department's main unit that can respond to terrorist attacks.

Before the September 11 attacks, the ESU mainly focused on the civil disobedience and domestic terrorism of the anti-capitalism protesters, whose demonstrations had grown more violent in other parts of the world.

"We have been used for every IMF protest. We're used by the warrant squad when they need to get into places," Lt. Alter said. "It was something that 9/11 changed. We are a catch-all for everything the department needs done."

"When 9/11 happened, we were learning. We never thought in a million years we would be put to the test in such short order. After then, we were put on the fast track," he said.

On September 11, Lt. Alter and members of his team were teaching a terrorism class to local fire and police departments when they heard the Pentagon had been struck by an airliner hijacked by terrorists. They were sent to the Pentagon with their tool trucks and cadaver dogs to recover bodies and evidence.

"At that time we had 12 members. We used our tools to remove rubble and debris and we recovered all the remains with the cadaver dogs," Lt. Alter said.

Before the attacks, the police department did not acknowledge the unit existed, forcing the ESU to beg for and borrow equipment and vehicles.

The unit was able to buy new gear with funds for homeland defense, but ESU officers still use two aging vans and borrowed cruisers.

The federal money has allowed the unit to order a new and larger truck about the size of the fire department pumper. The new truck will allow unit officers to carry all of their equipment and electric generators.

"When [the new truck] comes in, we can be operational for days, not hours," Lt. Alter said.

The unit was ready for the worse a week ago, when demonstrators threatened to block traffic into the city.

The unit's day got off to a lackluster start when it was called to remove a couple of sections of security fencing adjacent to the World Bank building at 19th and H streets NW to allow officers access to the area.

Lt. Alter said he anticipated that demonstrators would try to block traffic coming across the Potomac River bridges from Virginia by using "sleeping dragons" assemblages of pipes, buckets or barrels that several protesters can chain themselves to.

The devices are designed to conceal the chains to prevent officers from cutting them.

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