Dynamics Of Terrorism

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Terrorism has been a buzzword in the fire and emergency services for several years, yet it is still very new and dynamic in terms of general knowledge, technology, training and response procedures. Changes occur almost daily as manufacturers scramble to develop new equipment to meet the needs of civilian emergency responders. Federal agencies also are developing new training and response procedures for response to terrorist incidents.

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Photo by Robert Burke
Response to terrorism is a constantly changing technology.

It has been my belief from the beginning that terrorist response is just another hazardous materials response, with special circumstances. If a community is prepared to deal with hazmat incidents, it will be well on its way to preparing for acts of terrorism. Those communities that are not so well prepared will need much more preparation to get the job done.

Because of the constant state of change in response to terrorism, emergency personnel must keep up to date with the changes or they will be left behind to wonder what happened. In this column I will provide a collage of current information and changes for the emergency response to terrorism.

Coordination At The Federal Level

In the beginning, one primary complaint to the federal government from emergency responders concerned a lack of coordination of federal programs dealing with terrorist information, funding and training. As a result, the FBI's National Domestic Preparedness Office (NDPO) was established to coordinate the federal programs dealing with terrorist issues important to local emergency responders. NDPO has a website, which is part of the FBI site and can be accessed at www.ndpo.gov. NDPO issues an online newsletter each month called The Beacon, which contains information important to emergency responders. Current and back issues of The Beacon can be found at the site.

Recently, the House Transportation Subcommittee approved H.R. 4210, which was introduced to put an end to "turf wars and budget battles" among federal agencies. If passed by Congress, this bill would establish a White House office to coordinate anti-terrorism issues at the federal level, replacing the NDPO.

Potential Terrorism-Related Incidents

Major acts of terrorism have been on the decline worldwide in recent years. The threat of Y2K attacks did not materialize, thanks to law enforcement actions that thwarted a plot by Algerian nationalists to place bombs in Seattle and other U.S. locations during the New Year's celebration. Those involved were arrested trying to bring bomb materials into the U.S. from Canada in December 1999.

There have, however, been some recent incidents that were small and may not have been terrorist in nature, but reinforce the potential for terrorist acts that may occur in the future.

Early this year, 300 people in Kansas City, MO, were evacuated from their homes when anhydrous ammonia was intentionally released from an industrial facility. The person or persons responsible are not known, but this is a situation that a terrorist could perpetuate.

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Photo by Robert Burke
There are effective monitors for chemical agent releases, but for biological agents few exist beyond the military.

Many industrial sites and railroad yards in this country are vulnerable to a terrorists, who could release chemicals such as chlorine, anhydrous ammonia and others into the environment, causing death and injury to the civilian population and putting emergency responders in danger. Many toxic industrial chemicals are gases and would not require additional dissemination once they are released from their containers. An explosive charge properly placed with the right wind direction could place toxic gases over populated areas quickly.

Animal liberation activists have carried out attacks against facilities involved in alleged animal abuse. One such event occurred in Washington, D.C., when arson was attempted on a fur store. Militants in Colorado, Iowa and North Carolina have released animals, spray-painting graffiti on stores selling fur or meat, and damaging facilities during illegal entries. In Iowa 14,000 mink were freed from a fur farm, but died shortly after their release. Some quail released from a research laboratory in Colorado also died.

After a rash of hoaxes over several years involving anthrax, the threats seem to have subsided and are not receiving the media attention they were in the beginning. FBI guidelines established to reduce the impact and downplay such events might have led to the reduction. Responders were advised that all of the incidents had been hoaxes. Procedures call for a much-reduced response to this type of incident. FBI recommendations for responding to anthrax threats include: no chlorine bleach during decontamination unless anthrax presence is verified; no antibiotic administration unless anthrax is positively identified; and no mass evacuations or quarantines.

Anthrax, however, remains a credible biological terrorist threat. Because anthrax occurs naturally, it is easy for the terrorist to obtain. In Gerlach, NV, in August, a naturally occurring outbreak of anthrax killed 30 head of cattle. It is believed that workers cleaning a ditch released the soil-borne spores onto grasses in a pasture where the cattle contracted the disease. In Minnesota in September, six members of a farm family were exposed to anthrax after eating meat from an infected cow. Two family members developed gastrointestinal anthrax. The meat had been privately processed and not subject to inspections by regulators.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently identified the antibiotic Cipro, or ciprofloxacin, as the first line of defense against civilian exposure to anthrax. While Cipro has been on the market as an antibiotic for more than a decade, it is the first medicine to be officially designated for use after bioterrorism. It is most effective if taken within hours of anthrax exposure. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is stockpiling enough Cipro for 5 million treatments in this year's budget.

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Photo by Robert Burke
Decontamination runoff collection should be considered after life safety concerns for victims are addressed.

In a related issue, smallpox vaccine is being produced for the first time in decades for the military. Initial production will involve 300,000 doses, which should be finished by the end of the year. While smallpox has been eradicated from the world's general population, it is feared that terrorist groups may gain access to smallpox. Vaccination of the public and military was discontinued in the 1980s and many people, including children, are currently unprotected from the smallpox virus.

Middle-school students in Jacksonville, FL, ingested rat poison that had been sprinkled on salsa in the school cafeteria. Thirty-four students were involved, some complaining of headaches, stomach pains and nausea. All were treated and released from the scene and local hospitals. The pesticide used was Talon-G, which is fatal to humans only after large or repeated doses. Packets of the pesticide were placed around the school to control rodents. It is believed that two seventh-graders were involved. This is something that could also be easily done by a terrorist or terrorist group.

Some bottled water in New York has been found to contain sodium hydroxide and ammonia. People drinking the water from several different suppliers reported experiencing burning sensations in their throats after ingesting the water. It is unknown at this time who was behind the contamination or if tampering was involved. (One incident was attributed to a man who admitted to authorities that he poisoned a bottle of water, then drank it, to attract attention.) This too could be something a terrorist might attempt.

The recent discovery of the West Nile Virus in the Western Hemisphere for the first time could be suspected as a type of biological terrorism. Since its discovery in New York City, the disease has spread to several other states. While the source of the outbreak has not been identified, the disease has caused public health concerns, deaths and a potential long-term impact on the United States.

Planned Exercise Turns Real

During an exercise in Fort Worth, TX, response personnel were called to the JPS Health Center-Diamond Hill and The Health Center for Women for a reported pungent odor. Dozens of people became ill from something reported to have an egg or sulfur-like smell. One hundred fifteen patients and staff members were evacuated, with some complaining of headaches, itchy eyes, dizziness and vomiting. Thirty people were taken to area hospitals.

Victims were decontaminated using a tent that had been set up at the hospital for the exercise. Personnel reported that the decon area already set up for the exercise was a big help during the real emergency. The source of the odor has not been identified. This type of facility is a potential terrorist target and any incident should be carefully evaluated to determine the cause.

Sources Of Federal Funds For Local Responders

The Department of Justice/Office of Justice Programs (DOJ/OJP), Department of Defense and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) have funds to support equipment and training needs for local responders. Program information, grant guidelines and application forms can be accessed from the Office of Justice Assistance at www.ojp.usdoj.gov/fundopps.htm. FEMA programs and assistance information can be obtained at www.fema.gov. Defense Department programs and assistance information can be obtained at http://dp.sbccom.army.mil/.

New Technology & Resources

A job aid (ERT:JA) has been developed by the National Fire Academy for emergency responders to acts of terrorism. Development of the job aid was a joint effort of FEMA, the United States Fire Administration (USFA), and DOJ/OJP. The aid is designed as a "memory jogger" for first-responding personnel trained to respond to acts of terrorism. It has been divided into five sections, which are tabbed and color-coded to facilitate quick access to the information. The five sections are an Introduction (gray section), Operations Considerations (yellow), Incident-Specific Actions (white), Agency-Related Issues (blue) and a Glossary (tan).

The job aid is conveniently sized to fit into pockets on coveralls or uniform jackets, as well as storage compartments in apparatus cabs. Pages of the job aid are weatherproof, easily turned with gloved hands, can be marked upon with dry markers and are written in simple language using recognizable terms. Copies of the job aid are available from the Government Printing Office (GPO). Contact Alan Ptak or Jim Cameron at 202-512-1709 or e-mail at Aptak@gpo.gov. The cost is approximately $6.50 each, depending on the quantity ordered and shipping costs. (John Kimball, the terrorism program manager at the National Fire Academy, can answer questions on technical content. He can be contacted at 301-447-1533 or e-mail john.kimball@fema.gov.)

The NDPO has developed an On-Scene Commander's Guide for responding to biological/chemical threats. It was assembled with input from federal agencies along with state and local emergency responders. It is billed as a tool to help incident commanders assess options during the first two hours of an incident involving a potential biological or chemical agent. The guide has been produced to augment existing response policies and not to supersede local protocols. The 26-page guide can be obtained from the NDPO at 202-234-9026 or e-mail ndpo@leo.gov.

A portable biological air-sampling instrument has been developed by a private company and is being tested by the Chicago Fire Department. The device automatically collects aerosol samples and the samples are added to a test strip for evaluation. It is expected to be available for shipment this fall. The company has developed test strips for anthrax screening. Other strips for other biological materials are under development.

Training Update

USFA has a domestic preparedness training guide available for download at its website on federal weapons of mass destruction (WMD) training programs. The guide, Compendium of Weapons of Mass Destruction Courses, lists courses available from the Department of Defense, Department of Energy, Department of Health and Human Services, FEMA (which includes the Emergency Management Institute), Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program (CSEPP), National Fire Academy courses, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), DOJ/OJP and Department of Transportation. Each course is listed along with course sponsor, course description, course objectives, nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) areas of competency, target audience, type of instruction, course location/facility dependence, point of contact address, telephone number and comments. This guide is an excellent training information resource.

Training for the 120 largest cities continues with personnel in over 50 trained to date. The list has been expanded to cover 157 of the largest cities and counties nationwide.

EPA Chemical Safety Alert For Decontamination

During the spring of 1999, the team leader of the Chemical Weapons Improved Response Program (CWIRP), U.S. Army Soldier and Biological Chemical Command sent a letter to the EPA regarding first responder liability during a terrorist incident. The letter specifically asked what the first responder liability was for spreading contamination while attempting to save lives, i.e., during decon where runoff might contain contamination. Implications also spread beyond the terrorist incident to include hazardous materials spills as well. The primary concern is whether responders should take care of victims using emergency decontamination or first make sure the environment will not be damaged by decon operations.

During a recent federally sponsored multi-agency drill, response personnel were faced with a terrorist release of nerve agent. Hazmat teams were charged with rescue and decontamination of victims exposed to the agent prior to medical treatment. It was determined that the runoff from the decon operation should be collected to prevent a release into the environment. Entry was delayed for an hour to await the arrival and deployment of pools to collect the runoff water. By the time decon was performed, the "victims" had succumbed to the nerve agent exposure. However, the water was collected and the environment was protected!

As a result of the request from CWIRP, the EPA has issued a Chemical Safety Alert. Excerpts are presented in the following information.

The Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), Section 107 (d) Rendering Care or Advice, provides guidance for this issue. Section 107 (d)(1), also known as the "Good Samaritan" provision, states: "No person shall be liable under this subchapter for costs or damages as a result of actions taken or omitted in the course of rendering care, assistance or advice in accordance with the National Contingency Plan (NCP) or at the direction of an on-scene coordinator appointed under such plan, with respect to an incident creating a danger to public health or welfare or the environment as a result of any releases of a hazardous substance or the threat thereof." Negligence, as should be expected, is not covered. Chemical or biological releases at a terrorist incident would be considered hazardous materials incidents and CERCLA 107 (d)(1) would apply.

Section 107 (d)(2) further states that state and local governments are not liable under CERCLA "as a result of actions taken in response to an emergency created by the release or threatened release of a hazardous substance generated by or from a facility owned by another person." This section would insulate state and local governments from potential CERCLA liability arising from first responder actions. It does not, however, apply to costs of damage caused by gross negligence or intentional misconduct.

During hazmat incidents, including chemical/biological terrorist events, first responders should take necessary emergency actions to save lives and protect the public and themselves. Once imminent threats to human health and lives are addressed, first responders should immediately take all reasonable efforts to contain the contamination and avoid or mitigate environmental consequences. Further information can be obtained from the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Hotline at 800-424-9346 or 703-412-9810. The CEPPO homepage can be accessed at www.epa.gov.ceppo/.

FBI Intelligence Report

FBI intelligence officer numbers have grown almost fivefold during the Clinton administration. The FBI has placed a high priority on preventing terrorist attacks in this country. While the actual numbers of field agents assigned to terrorism is secret, sources cite a significant increase.

Success of the increased focus on anti-terrorism may be reflected in the decreased number of terrorism convictions since 1998, when there were 37 convictions. There are fewer terrorist convictions because there are fewer acts of terrorism going beyond the planning stage, thanks to successful efforts by the FBI and other federal agencies.

Terrorism-Related Internet Resources


Robert Burke, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is the fire marshal for the University of Maryland. He is a certified Hazardous Materials Specialist, and has served on state and county hazmat response teams. Burke is a veteran of over 18 years in the fire service, in career and volunteer fire departments, having attained the ranks of lieutenant and assistant chief, and served as deputy state fire marshal. He has an associate's degree in fire protection technology and a bachelor's degree in fire science, and is pursuing a master's degree in public administration. Burke is an adjunct instructor at the National Fire Academy. He is the author of the books Hazardous Materials Chemistry For Emergency Responders, published in 1997, and Counter-Terrorism For Emergency Responders, published in 1999. Burke can be reached on the Internet at robert.burke@worldnet.att.net.

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