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 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.

It's too soon to know if Ridge will have the clout he needs to coordinate such powerful agencies as the Departments of Defense, Justice and HHS, the FBI, the CIA and many others. His office is not cabinet level, but in theory it will do for domestic terrorism policy what the National Security Council does for foreign policy. Everyone has been waiting for him to get his team in place and start bringing some order out of the chaos. Hopefully, Ridge understands that local firefighters and EMS personnel are the first responders to every terrorist attack and can save lives while there's still time to save them. No one else can respond in minutes instead of hours or days.

Back in 1998, Battalion Chief Ray Downey of the New York Fire Department's Special Operations Command was one of several chiefs who testified at a congressional hearing on terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. An expert on rescue operations who helped start the FEMA Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) teams, Downey told the committee that "fear of chemical or biological terrorism is foremost in the minds of every firefighter." He warned that most fire departments could not handle a mass-destruction incident because they were not getting the federal funds that were needed for training and equipment.

"The preparation, training and equipment requirements should be approached from a bottom-up planning process," Downey advised. He wanted firefighters to have input with the federal agencies involved in anti-terrorism planning. He pointed out that local jurisdictions would have the responsibility for dealing with mass-casualty incidents while the federal government played a supporting role. Downey concluded by saying, "It is the first responder that will be facing the challenges that weapons of mass destruction present; they are the ones that need the funding and assistance that the federal government can provide."

Tragically, Chief Downey was one of the 343 FDNY firefighters who died at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, when terrorists turned jet airliners into weapons of mass destruction. He was a great fireman and we will miss him. But his words are as true today as they were three years ago. I wish that Tom Ridge could have known Ray Downey and I hope there's a place on his staff for a veteran fire chief who can tell him what it means to be a first responder.

Hal Bruno, a Firehouse® contributing editor, retired as political director for ABC News in Washington and served almost 40 years as a volunteer firefighter. He is a director of the Chevy Chase, MD, Fire Department and chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.