Cities Learn How to Handle Terrorists' Chemical Attacks
Yesterday's training session in Philadelphia is latest stop for a federal program designed to help cities combat chemical weapons.
WASHINGTON — It seems almost surreal, like something out of "The Rock" or another action film - the idea that terrorists could target American citizens with biological and chemical weapons.
But while no one's panicking, it's a scenario that emergency response teams in major cities around the country are taking very seriously. Yesterday, specially trained United States government officials met with emergency personnel in Philadelphia to come up with a game plan for how the city should respond to a chemical, biological, or radiological attack.
And Philadelphia is not alone. As chemical and biological agents become easier to buy, terrorists like those responsible for the 1995 sarin gas attack in Tokyo have increasingly turned to these weapons, and the pressure on US cities to prepare for such an attack has mounted. By the end of the summer, 26 other cities will have gone through the same training Philadelphia has - preparing themselves for terrorism in a time when acts of violence are not solely confined to the use of bullets and bombs.
"This is an evolution in the preparation for domestic terrorism," says Morrie Goodman, spokes-man for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). "This is really putting a rope around the issue and pulling together the pieces and parts of the federal government and reaching out to the cities to create a much safer environment."
The training, known as the Domestic Emergency Preparedness Training and Exercise Program, arose from the lessons learned in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing. Federal authorities realized there was no single entity in charge after the blast. One month later, President Clinton issued a directive that assigned specific duties to more than a dozen federal agencies if such a crisis were to happen again. And then last year, Congress signed off on funding for the new training outreach program.
More than a dozen agencies are involved in the effort: Trainers come from the FBI, FEMA, and the Department of Defense's Chemical and Biological Defense Command. The goal is to help the nation's cities - normally prepared to help only a hundred or so victims at a time - survive an attack that could affect thousands.
In Philadelphia, first responders - police and firefighters - learned to spot the first signs of an attack and how to avoid becoming victims in the chaos at the scene. Paramedics and other medical personnel were taught treatment procedures. And the city has begun accumulating larger quantities of countermeasure antidotes. It's all a part of a steep learning curve, experts say.
"Biological terror is unfamiliar," says Richard Danzig, former undersecretary of the Navy. "We are more familiar with explosive weapons. Police authorities don't normally work with biologists and that causes us to underinvest in this risk, and it suggests there is an educational process still required."
That's where the new program comes in. It will eventually get to 120 of America's largest municipalities, and through it, the defense department lends equipment to cities - including detection gear, decontamination units, and suits that protect against hazardous materials.
A few cities have already had their training session. Among them is Washington, and that training gave first responders an advantage in a real biological-agent scare last spring at the Jewish organization B'nai-B'rith.
A mail clerk discovered a large manila envelope exuding an ammonia smell. Within moments, roadways to the area were shut off, the suspect package was isolated, and office workers - stripped down to their underwear - showered off in the street a safe distance from the area.
The package turned out to be nonlethal, but citizens showed patience with the safety-first approach, and the incident proved a valuable training exercise for Washington's new response plan.
New York, however, leads the way in first-strike response capability. The mayor's office established an emergency medical strike team capable of triage response to a mass attack following the World Trade Center bombing in 1993. Yet federal officials say even these highly trained teams will benefit from the advanced training.
And while federal officials and experts agree that training will not solve all the problems biological attacks present, they say it is important.
"You want to think the best. But an attack with a biological weapon is a strong possibility," says Jeffrey Simon, president of Political Risk Assessment Co. "It does not mean we throw up our hands. It means being ready."