Guarding our towns: Operation Our Town joins local war on drugs – Altoona Mirror

Oct 22, 2022
An Operation Our Town billboard stands along Interstate 99 outside of Newry. Efforts to launch the organization that became Operation Our Town began in 2006. The group continues to help local law enforcement fight the region’s drug trade. Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
In the fight against the spread of drugs, communities throughout Blair County have found that it is less like fighting a fire and more like playing a game of whack-a-mole — as soon as one source is eradicated, another pops up to take its place.
That recurring problem is what inspired Michael Fiore, CEO and chairman of the board at Leonard S. Fiore Inc., to lay the initial groundwork in 2006 for the organization that would eventually become Operation Our Town.
Going back 17 years, there were numerous front-page articles about local shootings and at least two to three articles a week related to drugs, Fiore said.
“It was very concerning to me,” he said. “I had young kids; I have young nieces and nephews. The streets weren’t safe.”
Safety wasn’t the only concern — businesses were having trouble finding employees because of drug testing mandated by government and insurance agencies. With that in mind, Fiore asked a friend in law enforcement how he could help and discovered that there was a lack of equipment.
Drugs, weapons and money from suspected drug dealers are seized as evidence at the Altoona Police Department. Courtesy photo
“I started reaching out to all of my colleagues, and a lot of them were family businesses throughout the city,” Fiore said. “My goal was to raise $250,000 for law enforcement to help them go out and buy some equipment.”
Fundraising is key
With the community’s help, it wasn’t long before the money was raised and Operation Our Town was formed, with Fiore as the board president. Knowing law enforcement was just one prong to be utilized, the organization began looking into supporting drug prevention and treatment efforts.
As support for the organization grew, roundtables were started to reach into different industries, Fiore said, including a K-12 education roundtable headed by Hollidaysburg Area School District Superintendent Robert Gildea, a community revitalization roundtable headed by Altoona Mayor Matt Pacifico and a law enforcement roundtable headed by Blair County District Attorney Pete Weeks, among others.
“We’re going to do the best we can to support our law enforcement and do prevention and fight this drug war,” Fiore said. “It’s not a battle — it’s a war. It’s constantly changing.”
Some of the drugs and drug paraphernalia seized by the Altoona Police Department is seen at the station’s evidence room. Courtesy photo
One of the first things Operation Our Town did — and continued to do for 17 years — was fund a special drug prosecutor to work in the district attorney’s office, Fiore said.
With more funding coming in thanks to private donors and U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster securing federal money, the organization began reaching out to other community organizations and awarding grants for prevention and treatment.
To date, Operation Our Town has raised over $5.2 million from 668 donors and awarded more than $3.8 million in grants to 70 community-based programs and organizations. It has also partnered with about 27 Blair County agencies, from the Central PA Humane Society to the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
“It’s all about the kids,” Fiore said. “If we don’t look out for our children … you know, I care what we’re going to leave them and we need to keep them safe.”
Prevention in schools and beyond
Like Operation Our Town, the Blair County Drug and Alcohol Partnerships has its own education committee whose mission is to focus on addiction education strategies that promote prevention, intervention and treatment methods, according to the BCDAP 2020-21 annual report.
While the COVID-19 pandemic had a large impact on schools in the area, the staff from Blair County Prevention were still able to utilize virtual, hybrid and in-person instruction throughout the year. They implemented curriculums such as Botvin Lifeskills, Project Towards No Drug Abuse, Too Good For Drugs, We Know BETter that addresses gambling, and the vaping curriculums Prevention Plus Wellness and Catch My Breath.
Another key to prevention is keeping drugs from entering the streets in the first place.
When Operation Our Town was first established, Fiore said the drug hotline for Blair County residents to anonymously report tips and information regarding suspected drug activity — Push Out the Pusher — went to an answering machine.
“It went to an answering machine and then law enforcement listened to them because everybody thought they wanted to be anonymous,” Fiore said.
After several years, OOT managed to get the Blair County 911 Center to be the hotline’s operator so that when a call came in, the caller would have the choice of being anonymous or being transferred to speak to an officer.
In recent years, though, the number of calls to the tipline has dropped dramatically, with an all-time low of about 300 calls in 2021 from a high of about 1,800 calls in 2009.
“It did help,” Fiore said. “In 2006, and in 2014 and ’16, this is where we had the big push. Now it’s been dwindling off. And that is a huge tool for law enforcement and we need to focus on getting the attention back to that.”
More progress to be made
Despite the improvements that have been made since the early 2000s, drug use prevention still has a ways to go in Blair County. According to Operation Our Town’s 2022 Annual Report, there were 64 controlled purchases of controlled substances in Blair County in 2021 — the majority of which were for heroin, fentanyl or methamphetamine.
The Blair County Drug Task Force executed approximately 45 search warrants on residences or vehicles and 94 defendants were arrested, many of them with multiple criminal complaints, the report read.
In April 2021 alone, agents and officers with the Drug Task force and the Attorney General’s Bureau of Narcotics Investigation seized 336 grams of methamphetamine, 60 bricks of heroin and eight grams of fentanyl from an Altoona residence. They also conducted a multi-day operation that resulted in the seizure of “175 bricks of heroin and fentanyl that was being trafficked between Pittsburgh and Altoona,” the report said.
Then, in late August of 2021, those same agents and officers intercepted about six pounds of methamphetamine, 4.6 ounces of cocaine and 21 grams of fentanyl that was being brought from Allentown to Blair County for distribution.
“If we didn’t have the organization and the partnership with all these different organizations — including law enforcement — the community would be in a bad shape,” Fiore said.
Mirror Staff Writer Rachel Foor is at 814-946-7458.
NEXT WEEK: As police work to curb drugs coming into the county, school districts are working to combat drug use among youth. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is recommended that children be screened for substance abuse as young as 9 years old. School district officials have a variety of tools at their disposal to help students break the drug cycle.
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