Interagency Team Helps Cities Prepare for Terror
By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service
ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md., Dec. 16, 1997 As if they didn't face enough problems and potential threats, American cities today must confront a new menace -- terrorism.
The challenge of detecting and combating domestic terrorism falls squarely on the shoulders of police and fire departments, emergency medical teams and other municipal agencies, as well as air and ground transportation authorities. In many cases, however, these agencies aren't equipped or trained to deal with individuals and groups bent on violence as a means of achieving political objectives. They need help -- and are getting it -- from a DoD-led training initiative.
"It is not only a matter of fairness to the men and women who devote their lives to our safety, but also a practical matter of keeping alive and healthy the people we depend on in a crisis," says Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar. Lugar, Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico and former Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia sponsored legislation that funded domestic preparedness training in major U.S. cities beginning in 1997.
Under the initiative, DoD leads an interagency effort to enhance the capability of federal-, state- and local-emergency first responders in incidents involving nuclear, biological and chemical terrorism. The Army Chemical and Biological Defense Command at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., heads the team. Other federal agencies on the team are the FBI the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Health and Human Services. To date, they have provided training in seven of the 120 cities they will visit during the next several years.
"We recognize that the first responders are a highly trained, professional community, because they respond on a daily basis to hazardous incidents," said Army Lt. Col. John Ontiveros, deputy to the program director at Aberdeen. "We're providing what we call the 'NBC [nuclear, biological, chemical] difference.'"
Defense has taken a train-the-trainer approach frequently used to prepare military instructors and applied it to the domestic preparedness program. Seven courses range from basic emergency responder awareness and operations training to advanced training for medical or hazardous materials technicians and incident commanders. Basic courses cover:
o Responder awareness -- Teaches firefighters, police officers, hazardous materials teams and 911 dispatchers actions to take, how to look at certain situations and to be aware of agents and their capabilities;
o Responder operations -- Teaches incident response teams and emergency medical technicians precautions and actions to take when entering a hazardous materials zone; and
o Incident command structure -- Teaches incident commanders how to lead and direct a response to an NBC terrorism incident.
The technician training component of the program encompasses three advanced-level sessions for HAZMET responders, emergency medical service providers and hospitals. Available courses include:
o Hazardous materials -- Builds upon existing hazardous materials response capability. Students learn the differences among responding to nuclear, biological and chemical terrorist attacks;
o Emergency medical service -- Teaches emergency technicians and paramedics the differences in responding to nuclear, biological and chemical incidents; and
o Hospital providers -- Teaches physicians and nurses proper treatment of NBC victims.
Following an attack with many casualties, medics must stabilize, decontaminate and transport the injured to hospitals, Ontiveros said. Hospitals must be aware that many people may walk in; this happened in Tokyo after the sarin nerve gas attack on the city's subway system in 1995. Tokyo hospitals weren't prepared, he said; they lacked decontamination equipment and in many cases the knowledge and skill to properly treat the heavy onslaught of survivors.
Before sending a team to a training site, DoD talks to city officials to see what kinds of training they need. "We ask them how they're already set up to respond," Ontiveros explained. "What arrangements and agreements do they have between not only their own internal organization -- fire, law, EMS, hospitals -- but with their surrounding communities? A lot of communities have mutual aid pacts. Because they don't have the resources to handle a four-alarm fire or something that large, they call surrounding jurisdictions for assistance."
Medical and transit workers were key players when the training took place in Boston in October.
"We brought in not only the typical emergency responders but hospital providers as well," said Rich Serino, superintendent and chief of Boston Emergency Medical Services. "If Boston gets hit by a weapon of mass destruction, the hospitals are going to see mass casualties, and they need to know how to deal with that.
"We also included transportation officials, because transit sites are key terrorist targets. The training for them is important, especially in making them aware of what a weapon of mass destruction device may look like and where it may be planted."
Serino said the federal agencies' sharing of expertise and information far exceeded expectations. "It opened our eyes that there has to be some significant training for all first responders."
The city-federal partnership doesn't end when the initial training is over, Ontiveros said. The program progresses through three phases, from basic to intermediate to long-term. A tabletop exercise reinforces the training they received during the instructional period, he said. "Then, after we leave, the city is responsible for going out and training other first responders. Six months later, we'll come back and do what we call a 'muddy boot' or functional exercise, where they select certain elements to participate."
How vulnerable are American cities to terrorists? The FBI assesses domestic terrorism as a very low threat, Ontiveros said. The ease with which chemical and biological agents can be obtained, disguised, transported and used, however, suggests a huge potential for terrorist-inflicted mass casualties, he added.
"I don't think we're going to see tanker cars of nerve agent," Ontiveros said. "On the other hand, because these agents are liquid, with the density of water, and highly volatile, very small amounts could do a lot of damage. It's the magnitude of such terrorist strikes that cities fear most."
After getting the initial training, city officials cower at the tremendous coordination they must perform between sometimes hundreds of agencies that would respond to a mass casualty attack. "They haven't experienced this level of coordination before, and it's daunting," Ontiveros said. An attack on a city with a weapon of mass destruction would quickly overwhelm local capabilities, he said. So metropolitan areas have to pool their resources and be ready to aid each other. "They have to have mutual aid agreements in place," he said, "and be ready for those people to come in and augment emergency forces where the attack occurs.
"For the first several hours, the first responders are the city members, themselves, unless the state can quickly mobilize the National Guard. But the federal response, unless it happens next door to a federal installation, is going to take eight to 10 hours to arrive on site." Being prepared ahead of time to deal with a catastrophic attack, Ontiveros said, is the only hope cities have of effectively responding.
"Simply put," Boston's Serino said, "recognizing the potential destructiveness of weapons of mass destruction and how to deal with such attacks will determine how many casualties we avoid in a real incident. This training will enable us to be prepared."