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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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.