Homeland security - pork or protection?

In the post-9/11 era, counter-terror training centers become the new municipal must-have.

It's showtime at the Nevada Test Site. A bassoon voice over a public address system sets the scene: A team of "Al Qaeda terrorists" has just seized a "nuclear processing plant."

Immediately, a "SWAT team" (actually four local cops) scrambles across the craggy desert floor into the "plant" (actually a former rocket-testing structure). They try to neutralize the "terrorists" (actually just one rag-doll dummy). But the "terrorists" retaliate - and a "nuclear fireball" (actually a flour-based explosive) flashes like a mini-supernova across the khaki moonscape.

A squadron of white-suited "first responders" (actually the real thing - local police, fire, and paramedic personnel) swarms in to save the "victims" (actually volunteers equipped with Hollywood-style blood.)

At a safe distance, on a shielded stage, Tom Ridge, the White House Homeland Security chief, nods and smiles on cue, calling it a "sterling" performance.

He's trekked out to this remote cold-war nuclear test site at the invitation of Nevada's Sen. Harry Reid (D), who's lobbying for a share of the White House's proposed $3.5 billion for America's "first responders."

Senator Reid envisions this spot as the "top gun" of counter-terror training centers, where police, fire, and paramedic personnel will train for terror attacks. But he's got competition.

Indeed, in the security conscious post 9/11 era, many communities are responding with entrepreneurial spirit and political chutzpah to the booming demand for first-responder training - spurring construction of new and bigger facilities.

Whether these centers will actually boost readiness, however - or whether they're simply old-style pork-barrel projects cloaked in chic patriotism - is yet to be seen. But boosters are charging ahead.

• Reid hopes to win up to $250 million to expand the Nevada training center - and add 1,000 local jobs. Already 3,000 of America's "first responders" train here annually. If Mr. Ridge's funding comes through, 16,000 a year may come.

• In posh Glenview, Ill., officials plan to turn an old naval air base into "the Midwest's premier training academy" for fighting fires, crime, and terrorism.

• A suburban Detroit community college is constructing a 22-acre center with a faux motel and bank atop an old missile-silo site. It's even offering naming rights to buildings - for a fee. Or patrons can buy bricks at the site's memorial, where a twisted chunk of the World Trade Center is the planned centerpiece.

"Everybody's trying to do their share - and going about it in their own way," says John Eversole, who recently retired from commanding Chicago's hazardous-materials teams and is involved in antiterrorism training. "But the most difficult thing is getting one centralized, organized plan" to prepare frontline responders "to fight tomorrow's battles - not just yesterday's battles."

Indeed, at some new centers, most "antiterrorism" training is the same drilling that's been done for decades. In Sunrise, Fla., for instance, a long-desired police shooting range is now touted as an antiterrorism center.

At the Oakland Community College near Detroit, William Furtaw says the new antiterrorism elements at the training center he directs include a double-thick coil of barbed wire "like you would find at a nuclear power plant" - as well as plans to insert mock pipe bombs into regular training exercises.

Also, he insists, enabling police, fire, and medical teams to train all at once is very realistic for terrorism response. Before Sept. 11, his $13-million project was proceeding slowly on a shoe-string budget. Now it's expected to be fully operational in 2003.

The center is designed as a mock town that will include streets with traffic lights, a bank with real vault, three single-family homes, and a "rollover, flashover" unit that engulfs firefighters in flame.

Meanwhile, out in Nevada, boosters claim their spot is unique.

"We can do things here, you can't do anywhere else," says Lt. Larry Ayala, a broad-shouldered Nevada Test Site paramedic, sweating in the hot desert sun after the exercise last month.

Indeed, the site's arid climate, remote location, and deep water table mean, for instance, that toxic chemicals can be used in training exercises without fear of harming surrounding populations.

Others hope for new funds, too. There's the planned "one-stop" terror-training center in a highway tunnel at a National Guard facility in West Virginia. There's the planned $52 million Center for Anti-Terrorism and Security Training at Maryland's Aberdeen Proving Ground. And there's the Center for Domestic Preparedness at the US Army's former chemical-warfare training center in Anniston, Ala.

Yet having a big center "pop up in every state in the country ... wouldn't be advisable," argues Amy Smithson of the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington.

She says it makes more sense to send a few first responders to specialized schools.

"The money is better spent in equipping hospitals and fire departments" with decontamination or other equipment, she says. Besides, the "time-tested" way to train the majority of first responders is to have police and fire academies incorporate specific procedures in their curriculums, she says.

Furthermore, training exercises alone are far from sufficient, says Dave McIntyre of the Anser Institute of Homeland Security in Arlington, Va. That's because terrorism is so different from natural or other disasters.

"Next year's tornado won't be any smarter than last year's tornado. But a terrorist will plan his event so that however you respond will hurt you," he says.

He says that means teaching first-responders to out-think terrorists. Helping them see their own vulnerabilities, he adds, is crucial to America's counter-terror success.

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