Anthrax Scare Spots Weaknesses In Terrorism Response Capability

If nothing else, the great anthrax scare has revealed the few strengths and many weaknesses in this country's ability to respond to a biological or chemical act of terrorism. It re-emphasized the many warnings from fire chiefs that their departments do...


If nothing else, the great anthrax scare has revealed the few strengths and many weaknesses in this country's ability to respond to a biological or chemical act of terrorism. It re-emphasized the many warnings from fire chiefs that their departments do not have the resources to deal with a...


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If nothing else, the great anthrax scare has revealed the few strengths and many weaknesses in this country's ability to respond to a biological or chemical act of terrorism. It re-emphasized the many warnings from fire chiefs that their departments do not have the resources to deal with a large-scale bio-chem attack. It also made clear that the federal anti-terrorism effort has been hampered by bureaucratic turf wars and the lack of a strong leader to coordinate and control the many agencies involved.

As this is written, the toll in the anthrax attack appears to be 17 confirmed cases and four deaths in Florida, New Jersey, New York and the District of Columbia. Nevertheless, it caused widespread fear while disrupting Congress and the U.S. Postal Service. At first, there was confusion, under-reaction and contradictory statements from the federal agencies. This produced more confusion, panic and over-reaction by the public and local government. Perhaps the low point came when the Secretary of Health and Human Services insisted there was nothing to fear, while the Postmaster General said he could not guarantee the safety of the mail.

Eventually, federal authorities started talking to each other and got a handle on the dimensions of this attack. At the local level, fire department hazmat teams responded to thousands of false alarms from jittery citizens who thought they had been exposed to a letter containing anthrax powder. Every call had to be investigated, but very few required a full hazmat response.

This was not a major catastrophe, but it was a serious incident and it left many people with a lack of confidence in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and its Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Fire-rescue officials working with the CDC were impressed by the knowledge and skills of the doctors and scientists, but were frustrated by their methods and procedures. "They're brilliant people, but they don't have our sense of urgency and don't understand what we have to do as first responders," a senior paramedic said. Another fire official asks, "How do we bridge the gap between their knowledge and expertise with the problems our people face in the street?"

The public's anxiety was heightened when the Attorney General and the FBI Director issued a second alert that more terrorist attacks were expected. There was no information as to where or when it might happen or what form it might take. Like everyone else, fire departments learned about it from the news media and did not receive any guidance as to what they should prepare for. Fortunately, nothing happened, but the government's performance raised questions about who - if anyone - is in charge of the domestic war on terrorism.

The conflicts and lack of coordination at the federal level come as no surprise to the fire-rescue service. In the eight years since the first World Trade Center bombing, a parade of fire chiefs has appeared before various congressional committees to plead for the money, training and equipment they need to prepare their departments to face the threat of terrorism. Their testimony also pointed out that the federal programs had become tangled in an uncoordinated, bureaucratic maze, with no direction and more than 40 agencies pushing their own projects in order to grab a share of the money and power. Millions of dollars that should have gone to first responders were wasted on foolish boondoggles.

The Clinton administration did nothing and denied that there was a problem. In Congress, the House attempted to create a coordinating office, but the Senate refused to go along. The new administration began to deal with the problem last spring, when President Bush announced that Vice President Cheney would oversee a plan in which the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) would take charge. That plan was shelved after Sept. 11, when the President formed the Office of Homeland Security and appointed Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge to be the director.

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