Preparing For The Next Attack

Many U.S. cities have tightened security and upgraded emergency response plans following the Sept. 11 attacks, but civic leaders say they remain ill-prepared to face chemical or biological threats.

The response of Wilmington, Delaware, located halfway between New York and Washington, is fairly typical. Mayor James Baker said the city had improved protection of key targets, including the city's water supply, and had invested in some new equipment for police and firefighters but could not get much further without money from the federal government.

"We've been waiting for Congress to authorize the creation of a Department of Homeland Security. We've been spending our own dollars and we need federal dollars," he said.

Since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon almost a year ago, Wilmington has placed 24-hour camera surveillance on its reservoir, and has stepped up security and sampling at its water purification plant and pumping station; it has doubled the number of its bomb-sniffing dogs; bought night vision equipment for fire fighters and is looking to invest in an public notification system that could reach every citizen through massive loud speakers strategically placed around the city in case of emergency.

But the city only has 250 one-time use biohazard protective suits to be shared between 500 emergency responders in case of a chemical attack. Emergency personnel in other cities have no protective gear at all.

ILL-PREPARED FOR MASS VACCINATION

Federal health experts said at a conference Tuesday many communities were ill-prepared to handle a biological hazard. If there were a smallpox attack, the federal government now has enough vaccine stockpiled to protect 155 million people. But cities would find themselves ill-prepared to organize mass vaccinations while screening out those who would be harmed by the vaccines and educating citizens about their effects.

The Pentagon said this week it would begin developing a nationwide program for military and civilian agencies to detect and respond more effectively to any biological attack against American cities.

"The purpose of the program is to achieve early detection and characterization of a biological-related incident in an urban area in order to reduce casualties, minimize disruption to infrastructures and support consequence management efforts," the Defense Department said.

James Mosely, Wilmington's public safety officer, said each of the major office complexes in the city center now had an updated evacuation plan. The city is home to several major banks and finance companies but security for those buildings is left to each company.

"We established a prioritized list of our needs but it's guesswork because we don't exactly know what the threat is. There have been times that security alerts have been made public on TV and our local FBI liaison didn't know anything about them," he said.

NEW EVACUATION PLAN

In Orlando, Florida, Mayor Glenda Hood said there had been no city center evacuation plan before last Sept. 11. The city now had a plan in place and was running a simulated partial evacuation this week.

"We have better security on our public buildings and we have a trained urban search-and-rescue capability," Hood said.

The mayor, who was appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush to chair a state domestic security panel, said there had been a large increase in the number of citizens volunteering for emergency response training and neighborhood anti-crime watch groups, which were now also receiving anti-terrorism training.

"We aim to double the number of neighborhood watches and triple the number of emergency response volunteers in the next two years," she said.

In Laredo, Texas, on the U.S. border with Mexico, 68 percent of the municipal budget now goes to firefighting and police protection. The city recently inaugurated a new regional fire training facility.

The city's four international bridges linking the United States to Mexico were equipped with more advanced X-ray machines to search freight and baggage. But Mayor Betty Flores said the biggest change since last year was in public awareness of security.

"You cannot leave the city by train, plane or car without someone asking you whether you are a citizen of the United States," she said.

Mayor Jeff Griffin of Reno, Nevada, said his city had worked hard to improve airport security and had put in place video surveillance of its water treatment plant.

He would like to buy biohazard suits to help police deal with chemical or biological emergencies but is waiting for help to arrive from the federal government.

"We're still waiting for the new office of Homeland Security to start handing out some money for training and equipment," he said. Legislation to create the new government department has been stuck in Congress as lawmakers and the White House argue about its powers.

Mayors complained about a lack of information from the federal government and security agencies, saying they remained confused about what they were supposed to guard against.

Wilmington's Baker said: "Who and what are we supposed to be looking out for and how would we know it if we saw it? We need to be clear what we are trying to accomplish. Coordination and sharing information are the biggest challenges."

Despite the progress made in Wilmington, this reporter walked into the city and county headquarters, took an elevator to the ninth floor and entered the mayor's suite without once being challenged or asked to show identification.

Baker said he hoped to introduce a security system soon.
  • Brian Bernbaum

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