- WASHINGTON (August 26, 1997 07:34 a.m. EDT) -- It seems almost surreal,
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
- "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
- 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
- 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
- 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 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."