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Ridge: Unified agency a 'continuation' of security efforts

'Americans are not afraid of anybody or anything'

Homeland Security Secretary Ridge
Homeland Security Secretary Ridge

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Secretary Tom Ridge said Monday that when 22 different governmental departments are fully merged into a unified Homeland Security Department next month, the historic event will mark not the "beginning," but the "continuation" of efforts to keep the nation secure.

Some 175,000 workers from those departments have already been hard at work trying to prevent terrorist attacks, reduce the nation's vulnerability to terrorism, and respond to attacks, Ridge said, adding the department had gone from "an idea on paper to a reality in large part."

"On March 1, just over three months since it was signed into law, the Department of Homeland Security will finally become one united force for securing the homeland," he told National Emergency Management Association members.

Ridge cited progress in a number of areas:

• enhanced passenger and baggage screening;

• reinforcing U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico;

• creation of plans to protect critical and cyber infrastructures;

• deployment of biological attack sensors;

• initiation of smallpox vaccinations;

• laying the groundwork for a terrorist threat integration center;

• customs checks of commercial ships before they arrive at U.S. ports.

The Homeland Security secretary pointed to last Friday's refinery explosion on Staten Island in New York as an example of the improved coordination and communication between governmental agencies.

"When our incident management team and our coordination center was notified (of the explosion), within in a very short period of time ... we knew what was going on at the local (and) state level," Ridge said. "We engaged immediately in conversations with the Coast Guard, the EPA, the Health and Human Services."

Though Ridge called March 1 a "continuation," he said he looked forward to the enhanced capabilities of an integrated Homeland Security Department.

Departments have "been stovepiped before across the board," he said. "We think there are enormous, stronger capacities we can build because Congress has given us the flexibility to merge and to integrate some of these units."

As for last week's announcement of the "" campaign, Ridge said Americans were advised to put together a communications plan and an emergency supply kit, and to stay informed -- but then to go about their business and leave national security to the professionals.

"We can be afraid or we can be ready," Ridge said. "And Americans are not afraid of anybody or anything.

"It's pretty clear that we're just going to be ready."

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