U.S. Not Prepared for Terrorist Attacks, First Responders Warn

Nov. 1, 2002
Despite progress since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 last year, the country still faces significant risks from weapons of mass destruction (WMD) because of the unmet needs of police officers, firefighters and emergency medical personnel.

That's the view put forth by a variety of officials at the Second Global Conference on Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Terrorism, held Oct. 31-Nov. 1 in Washington, DC.

"Over the past 14 months I truly believe many of us have made progress in our anti-terrorism preparations," said Charles Ramsey, Metropolitan Washington DC Police Chief. "But it would be foolish or naïve to assert that we've finished the job."

Ramsey then referred to a recent blue-ribbon task force report led by former Senators Warren Rudman and Gary Hart that states, "even in our largest cities we continue to face serious challenges in trying to prepare for and respond to terrorist acts."

Entitled "America Still Unprepared – America Still in Danger," Ramsey said all first responders should read the report, which can be found at www.cfr.org/publication.php?id=5100.

Relying on both the task force's conclusions and his own experience, Ramsey then ticked of a list of the most critical continuing challenges:

  • Equipment needs remain unmet and federal support here is crucial because local agencies cannot afford to buy what is needed;
  • Intelligence gaps, stemming in part from federal resistance to sharing information, mean local responders often operate in an "intelligence vacuum;"
  • Radio communication, primarily the lack of inter-operability among the communication devices used by various first responder agencies in different jurisdictions, make it difficult for first responders to communicate with each other.

Speaking at the same workshop, entitled "First Responders Response to Incidents," Ray Blankenship of the Arlington, Va. Fire Department confirmed Ramsey's concerns and added a few more of his own from the perspective of smaller communities.

Specialized training, equipment, and pharmaceuticals as well as the full integration of all response operations are critical, according to Blankenship.

"Ask yourself if you have what you need to get through the first 6 to 12 hours after an attack" said Blankenship, "because there will be no federal response before that."

Blankenship also noted that hospitals need to be prepared for thousands of self-referrals, while local health officials must be ready to deal with hundreds or possibly thousands of fatalities.

Blankenship, Ramsey, and others at the conference called for standards to help them in the purchase of personal protective equipment and other material they need to prepare for potential attacks with WMD.

"We need standards and we don't have them right now, so that I know what I'm buying will do what it says it's going to do," said Ramsey.

"Unless somebody has tested it, we're not going to buy it," agreed Elliot Grollman, chairman of the law enforcement working group at the Washington Metro Council for Governments.

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