Horsham Police Captain Joseph Repkoe was having a cup of coffee on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
He had heard about the first plane hitting the World Trade Center, and, a few moments after 9 a.m., watched live as the second plane hit the south tower. Seconds later, Repkoe mobilized police on the streets, that fateful moment forever changing life in and around the fenced-in 1,100-acre .
“We notified the guys on the street to head to the military installation,” Repkoe recalled. “We didn’t know if the military was going to come under attack.”
Keeping “Eyes on the Base”
The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks – preceded by in 1999; and local devastation from Tropical Storm Allison in June 2001 – was the final catalyst for the formation of the Horsham Chiefs Advisory Teams or ChATs.
“That put the program in high gear,” said Gary Bissig, one of the founding members of the all-volunteer community policing, neighborhood watch group. “We had resources that you could not believe. It was what people wanted to do.”
Initially, four people, including Bissig, the township’s unpaid deputy management coordinator, started ChATs. Nearly a decade later, Bissig said there are hundreds of volunteers working in various capacities – from neighborhood watch to disaster relief, community cleanups and more.
“There was no blueprint for us to follow,” said Bissig, who yearned to collaborate more with police following his own graduation from the Citizens Police Academy. “We really first had to take a hard look at what activities people can do.”
From the outset, Bissig set out to restore that “sense of community” that he remembered from growing up in Horsham during the 60s and 70s. He wanted to get to know his neighbors and their families, as was the case years before.
One of the first programs the group started in its infancy was an aptly titled program, “Eyes on the Base.” Soon after the terrorist attacks, Repkoe remembers police and ChATs members setting up tables along Route 611. It was during a Reserve weekend, when lots of military were on site, Repkoe said, and the team lined the busy roadway, handing out American flags.
“We were going to remain vigilant,” Repkoe said. “There were people watching outside the fence line while the military were protecting us inside the fence line.”
As the public became wary of people photographing military installations, Repkoe said the group enlisted help from a team of amateur photographers who regularly took pictures in Horsham during Reservist weekends. The photographers were asked to periodically stake out a spot at Lancers Diner and other sites neighboring the air base to keep an eye out for suspicious activity.
Police and the ChATs team also compiled and distributed a checklist of things local hotels and motels should look for in potentially suspicious patrons, Repkoe said, noting that the intent was to thwart attacks on the base. Repkoe recalled an instance where Horsham Police were alerted after hotel officials said a man checked in, didn’t sleep in the bed and apparently spent the entire night smoking cigarettes while looking out the window, which faced the air base. Repkoe said the federal government was notified and the man was questioned. The situation turned out to be a non-issue, but Repkoe stressed the importance of being ready and alert – particularly after Sept. 11.
“We were trying to do something,” Repkoe said. “Our job is to apprehend and deter crime.”
ChATs takes to the community
Besides being the eyes and ears of their neighborhoods in an effort to prevent crime and quality of life issues, Bissig said ChATs has also helped in rounding up a reliable “bench” to sub in during disasters, or emergency situations.
The recent was a perfect example. As compared to the community’s limited preparedness for Tropical Storm Allison a decade earlier, Bissig said he had a team of five “able, willing and ready to go” during last month’s storm.
“The last thing you want to do in a crisis is round people up,” Bissig said. “People now look at preparedness in a whole new way … We now have a bench. We now have a team of people who can get the community back on its feet.”
Sometimes helping the community comes in various forms. Following of 2010 Hatboro-Horsham High School graduates and , the ChATs team stepped up.
“We had a memorial service where the accident happened,” Horsham Police Lt. Clark said. “We had some ChATs members assist us.”
During the roughly three-hour , which was attended by an estimated 500 people, the ChATs team, including Bissig, helped direct traffic and keep mourners safe from oncoming traffic as night fell.
Without ChATs, police would have been “overwhelmed” during the vigil as officers were assisting with a domestic call, which Clark said requires at least two police.
“I always knew there were good people, but I never realized there were so many good people who wanted to help out,” Clark said of ChATs.
Spreading the word
Since the Sept. 11 attacks and with the formation of ChATs, communication as police previously knew it has drastically changed. When Horsham Police are looking to share news of scam artists preying on elderly, suspicious persons trying to pick up children, or a string of car break-ins, Repkoe said ChATs is one of the first to know. Through the group’s e-mail notification system and Web site, important information is disseminated quickly.
“It’s trying to reach as many people as we can,” Repkoe said.
And once people are reached, the help can begin. Repkoe, who will celebrate his 39th anniversary with Horsham Police this week, said he hopes ChATs will continue long after he leaves the force – if for nothing else than the good of the community.
“The community in a disaster situation has got to rely on itself,” Repkoe said, adding that the “neighbors helping neighbors” notion helped the people of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. More recently, in last month’s storm, Horsham neighbors shared generators during power outages. “The fact that ChATs has lasted 10 years shows the need and the determination of the people. Sometimes they’ll call us before we call them.”
For Bissig, his proudest moment is that ChATs has continued for the last 10 years, growing exponentially along the way.
“This has continued through good times and bad,” Bissig said, adding that more members are always welcome. “You can get involved as much, or as little as you like.”
For more information about ChATS, click here.