A homeland readier for 'high' alert

Government raises threat level as war looms, but agencies and cities have been preparing for months.

"Hello, 911? This is an emergency!"

As US troops head into war, the effort to protect the American homeland is also ratcheted up, probably into the largest effort since the Sept. 11 attacks.

How well is the nation prepared to respond to emergency calls?

The short answer, experts say, is that America has improved its ability to respond to World Trade Center-size emergencies and smaller attacks. While the improvement is spotty, the progress was underscored this week by efforts that came as the US moved to "high" terror alert.

Federal officials stepped up security everywhere from sea-coast harbors to airports to Midwest feed lots to cyberspace. Some nuclear plants are ringed with armed guards. In New York, television stations have police outside to prevent takeovers.

Intelligence officials are taking aggressive and sometimes controversial steps to interview thousands of Iraqi Americans and carefully screen asylum seekers from some Muslim nations.

Local and state officials, meanwhile, prepared to respond to any attacks that do occur. Cities and states have been hard at work for months to better prepare. Some examples:

• Maryland is installing a new communications system so local police and fire units can talk to the state police on their radios and respond more efficiently to emergencies.

• Denver and six counties around it have stocked up with antibiotics and chemical weapons' antidotes.

• Detroit has lined up "citizen radio patrols," mainly ham-radio operators, to help get information through in case other communications systems fail.

"Pre-9/11 we were a D; now, we're a C," says Clark Staten, senior national security analyst at Emergency Response Institute in Chicago. "When new money gets to the local responders, we will probably move to a B."

Some of that money should start to flow relatively soon. In the fiscal 2003 budget, just passed by Congress, some $1.4 billion was set aside for homeland security. Only last week, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge announced $750 million for firefighters to help respond to terrorism incidents.

"We have made significant progress," says Brian Roehrkasse, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security. "Now, we have to improve the coordination between state, local and federal government."

And, according to two reports released Tuesday by the General Accounting Office, there are still some major uncertainties regarding security around chemical plants and food processing. For example, the GAO cites a federal EPA report that 123 chemical facilities located throughout the nation have a "worst-case" scenario where more than 1 million people could be at risk of exposure to a cloud of toxic gas.

New York this week moved to a higher level of alert, which officials termed Operation Atlas and includes more vehicle searches and police protection. New York already plans to use Federal Emergency Management Agency to build a $100 million state-of-the-art emergency facility. Its last building was destroyed on 9/11. One of the lessons learned from the Trade Center attack is to make the new facility large enough to run the entire city in case of another emergency, says Frank McCarton, a spokesman for the city agency.

Sometimes new needs have become self-evident. Maryland realized it needed to do something only a month after 9/11 when a tractor-trailer carrying eight missiles overturned and spilled its cargo. The state police, a country fire and rescue crew and personnel from the Department of Defense all responded. "Yet none of their radio systems could communicate with each other," says a report on the need for new wireless gear. The equipment allows a command center to patch the groups together. "On a computer screen, an icon represents each group and the operator just slides one on top of the other - it's really cool technology," says John Cohen, CEO of PSComm, which is also working with Arizona on this issue.

In Denver, 15 hospitals in the region have been preparing for the possibility of performing mass decontamination. "It's a continual process but we keep chipping away at it little by little," says Dave Sullivan of the city's Office of Emergency Management.

Detroit is beefing up the ability of its health system to respond to emergencies as well. It has joined the national pharmaceutical stockpile. "If our own suppliers are overwhelmed, we can take advantage of this system and fly in large amounts to augment our own supplies," says Shelby Slater, the city's emergency management director.

Part of the improvement for many cities can be traced to better training for first responders. Texas A&M University's National Emergency Response and Training Center has trained 2-1/2 times more first responders in the past 18 months than it trained in the prior 18 months. "A lot more middle-sized communities are paying more attention," says Jim Thyne, the center's director of training.

Other states and cities have been expanding "211" services. These allow citizens to find out where to access health and human services information, particularly in the event of an emergency. Also, it gives people a chance to volunteer to help others.

For example, after 9/11 hundreds of travelers were stranded at Hartsdale Airport in Atlanta. "Residents of Atlanta started calling 211 offering their own homes for people to stay and they were connected to people who needed help," says Brian Gallagher, president of the United Way, a proponent of the concept.

"War only accentuates the need for this service," says Mr. Gallagher.

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