By Tess Wahlmeier, Southern Nebraska Register

LINCOLN (SNR) – Ever since Pope Francis made his official announcement that he would be visiting Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families, the National Guard has been planning the logistics, traffic, and security for his arrival.

Fred Phelan, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Pennsylvania National Guard and a member of St. Michael Parish in Lincoln, has been involved in the planning for the past several months. As a Lieutenant Colonel for the Pennsylvania National Guard, Phelan is usually an air staff planner.

SNR photo by Ed Malk

“What we’ve done so far is use the standard military planning process to understand all the risks that may be out there, figure out ways to mitigate those risks,” he said, “and then come up with a concept of operations as to how the National Guard can support the city, who is, in turn, trying to support the pope and the nation.”

Philadelphia is home to about 1.5 million people. The main downtown area, which is where the Papal visit and World Meeting of Families will occur, is bordered by the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers.  Phelan said that, with visitors, it is expected that Philadelphia will have about four million people, which poses problems for things like traffic and security.  Since the amount of people being in one place at one time far exceeds the city’s local police capacity, the National Guard has been called in to help with logistics.

“Everybody gets very focused on the fact that the Papal visit will happen over the weekend, they lose sight of, as well, that the World Meeting of Families will be happening all throughout the week,” Phelan said.

Phelan said there will be five to six thousand National Guardsmen downtown handling traffic, giving directions, and keeping emergency response streets clear.  Phelan also said that Philadelphia has been barricaded, in the sense of traffic. Cars leaving the barricaded section will not be allowed back in, and the Benjamin Franklin Bridge that connects Philadelphia to New Jersey is going to be open to foot traffic only.  Train commuter lines and subways have been modified for this specific event.  Phelan said that, with the border around the downtown part of Philadelphia, the walk to get from outside the barricade to the downtown area is about five miles, one way, assuming one has the best parking spot available to begin with.  Phelan said demographic studies have also shown that the average age of the visitor is lower- to mid-60s.

Phelan will be stationed at the National Guard headquarters in Harrisburg, Pa., while other National Guardsmen, local and county police, and even the Secret Service are stationed in the city.

“The Secret Service has the responsibility, not only for the pope himself, but for any other foreign dignitaries that will be there,” Phelan said, “so he’s afforded the same protection as that which our own President would be, were he to be in Philadelphia.”

The Navy and Coast Guard will also be involved in the security operation.

“There’s always the scenario of planning for what if something goes wrong,” Phelan said.  The National Guard tries to plan for any nuance of anything that could go wrong, whether that be a collapsing grandstand or a chemical hazard.

Planning for traffic and civilian security aren’t the only challenges Phelan has faced.  Another challenge has been figuring out how to feed and shelter all of the National Guardsmen who will be coming into the city.  Additionally, St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, where the pope will be staying, is just on the city limits, making for complications.

“One side of the street is in Philadelphia, and the other side of the street is actually Montgomery County,” Phelan said.

Phelan moved to Lincoln two years ago and transitioned away from active duty, but remained a planner for the Pennsylvania National Guard.

“Had I transferred to the Nebraska National Guard, I would not be involved in this,” Phelan said.

In the Pennsylvania National Guard, Phelan’s job is planning operations similar to this one in Europe. For instance, if a country has experienced a natural disaster and the President of the United States sends troops in, Phelan would handle the planning for that operation.  His background in planning led him to this operation.

“Any time you get a chance to do some type of service like that, it’s just humbling.”

Father Kenneth Borowiak, pastor of St. Michael Parish, said it was an honor for the entire parish that Phelan is directly involved in helping provide security for Pope Francis’ pilgrimage to the United States.

“By association Fred is extending the hospitality not only of St. Michael parishioners but all Catholics in the Diocese of Lincoln to Pope Francis by assuring that the Holy Father’s pilgrimage to our great country is safe and accessible,” Father Borowiak said.

Father Borowiak went on to commend all law enforcement, emergency response and military professionals who will be providing security while the Pope is in the United States.

“We owe the men and women who wear the uniform of our country and local jurisdictions a debt of gratitude,” Father Borowiak said. “I hope that when the public see people in uniform that they go up to them and thank them for their service.”

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