Florida county actually invites disaster

Largest training exercise in the US reveals shortfalls in emergency response to biochemical attacks.

When a loud explosion shook a building in south Florida's Lake Worth, dozens of victims emerged, staggering and sweating. Some area hospitals, already swamped, had to turn victims away.

Within minutes, local fire, police, and hazardous-material units were on the scene, working to secure the area.

But by the end of the day, 16 people were dead and more than 150 were wounded from exposure to the military nerve agent V/X.

At least, on paper.

Palm Storm, as this exercise was dubbed, was a simulated chemical attack designed to provide first-hand experience for Palm Beach County's emergency workers. It was the largest training exercise of its kind in the United States and the first to be held countywide.

The extent that officials went to, disrupting an entire county, shows how seriously communities are preparing for potential attacks. But the exercise also revealed how difficult it is to combat such challenges effectively.

For example, despite months of preparation, there were still large holes in Lake Worth's safety net. A number of "victims" made it to area hospitals, contaminating those facilities. And the police officers who secured the site would have been "blue canaries" - first on the scene and the first to die, because they were not wearing protective suits or masks.

The value of these exercises, which have been held in dozens of cities across the country over the past few years, including recent ones in Salt Lake City in preparation for the Winter Olympics, have taken on new meaning since Sept. 11. What was once considered an improbability is now on everyone's mind.

"We now have to come up with a contemporary method to respond to issues that we wouldn't have considered being confronted with as recently as six months ago," says Lt. Ken Wagner, Palm Beach County Emergency Services Officer.

While emergency services had advanced warning of the day, no one knew exactly what form the bioterrorism would take.

In addition to the chemical attack at 9:30 a.m., emergency personnel also had to locate two other attacks at the same site, one a traditional bomb.

But despite the 260 volunteers staggering about and a four-hour traffic jam that resulted, Palm Storm lacked the urgency of a real attack. For example, victims being decontaminated under an improvised shower from a fire truck wore their bathing suits.

Nonetheless, those involved thought the exercise had real value. One of the "victims," Michael Hays, graduates this Thursday from the Palm Beach County Fire Academy, and he appreciated the chance to witness a trial run. "Pretty soon, I'll be a piece of this when I get into my career. It's good to see how this will play out."

Funded by the Department of Justice, Palm Storm involved more than 600 people from 44 state, federal, and local agencies, including 260 volunteer victims. Planning began eight months ago.

Since 1998, when the Office of Justice Programs created the Office for Domestic Preparedness to provide assistance for the planning and preparation of a domestic response to terrorism, it has trained 77,000 emergency responders in more than 1,300 communities. Congress has slated more than $250,000 for next year's counterterrorism program.

Palm Beach County, home to United Media, was the site of the first anthrax attack, and home to 15 of the 18 terrorists involved in the Sept. 11 tragedy. Before September, the county's hazardous-materials team received a half-dozen calls a week; now they get two-dozen a day.

Palm Beach Police Capt. Mike Galwin says his department is facing the same dilemma as forces across the country: How much money should be spent on preparation, and how much should be spent on management?

"If we buy all the material we need and nothing ever happens, we'll be told we wasted money," he said. "But if we aren't prepared, like today, we'll lose a lot of officers."

But budgetary questions were hardly on the mind of Lisa Love, one of the volunteers. As a "victim" of a chemical attack, the nursing student just wanted help, and couldn't understand why the rescue officers kept telling her to stay back.

"They needed to protect themselves in order to help us," she says. "That was a real eye-opener for me, because as a nurse, I think of going to comfort someone. I have a whole different perspective on things now."

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