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'First Responders' Key to Effective Reaction to Terrorism - 2003-03-15

The war on terrorism within the United States is highlighting the role of the people called "first responders" - the police, firefighters and emergency officials responsible for protecting local communities. Officials say coordination of first responders is the key to an effective reaction to terrorism.

The threat of terrorism is global, say Los Angeles officials, and so their five-step color code to measure the threat level takes world events into account.

For example, the capture or death of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden would push up the local alert level from yellow to orange, that is, from the third to the second-highest step on the five stage scheme. The shift would result in heightened security throughout the city, and at its airport and seaport. The death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat would also be judged destabilizing, and push up the terror alert from its current yellow to orange.

Ellis Stanley heads the emergency preparedness department of Los Angeles, and he notes that the city was under threat before the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on the East Coast. "We've determined that certain incidents may trigger retaliation. And we know that from even before 9-11, Los Angeles airport was a target for terrorism," he says. "We've convicted an individual who was headed for LAX to blow it up. So we've identified certain acts that we think could contribute to a retaliatory strike in some fashion."

From Washington, the new Department of Homeland Security assesses the terrorist threat nationally, issuing color-coded threat levels. Los Angeles officials determine the threat level locally, using federal guidance.

A terrorist incident could trigger a red alert, restricting access to public places and closing government offices. Forty-five Los Angeles city departments would then send representatives to an emergency center in city hall. If it is inaccessible, operations can be moved to one of four parallel facilities in other neighborhoods.

In the hills of Los Angeles, a separate center run by the county government would coordinate emergency efforts of 88 regional cities.

Anna Burton of the Los Angeles department of emergency preparedness says earthquakes, floods and brush fires have prompted coordination of this maze of jurisdictions. "I think that's been a problem across the nation for many years, is how do organizations communicate and coordinate during a disaster? Luckily, or unluckily, for the city of Los Angeles, we've had so many disasters over the years, we've had lots of practice," she says.

For police and firefighters, advance preparation and training will improve the response to a terrorist incident, says Captain Larry Collins, who heads an urban search and rescue team for the county fire department.

He says before terrorism emerged as a threat, firefighters faced similar risks from chemical, gasoline or natural gas explosions. Now there are added concerns, he explained, as he guided his crew on a joint drill with a hazardous materials, or Hazmat, team. "On an explosion, we're going to be concerned about radiological and chemical and biological. And so I would normally communicate with the Hazmat squad when we arrive," he says.

"Hazmat 105 from USAR 103"
"Go ahead, USAR"
"Ready for your personnel for sweeping"
"They're on their way up"

As search and rescue workers assess the structural soundness of a building and look inside for victims, fire Captain Mike McClanahan supervises the Hazmat force as they don their protective suits for the second part of this drill. The lime green chemical outfits are air-tight, with breathing tanks inside.

The team leader explains that after completing the cleanup of hazardous chemicals, team members are decontaminated by colleagues, who spray them with soap and water. "As our entry team gets out of the chemical atmosphere, they have to be scrubbed and [decontaminated]. As we rescue people, they'll be going through our decon as well," says Mr. McClanahan.

The terrorist attacks of September, 2001, taught first responders like firefighters that they can also be targets. More than 340 firefighters and 70 police officers died in the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center. Many Los Angeles firefighters wear special New York insignia to honor their fallen colleagues.

Fire Captain Larry Collins believes secondary attacks are aimed at killing or maiming rescuers and spreading panic. He says in spite of the danger, firefighters will do their job. "We save every life that we can save," he says. "And we reduce the damage. And we do it quickly, and we turn around and do exactly what happened in New York." He says the city will quickly rebuild and life will return to normal.

Homeland security director Tom Ridge recently announced $750 million in added funding for local firefighters to deal with the threat of terrorism. Many state and city governments say that's not enough.

Fire Captain Larry Collins says his department needs more radiological, biological and chemical detectors for those who may be front-line troops in the war on terrorism. Los Angeles police chief William Bratton has complained to federal officials that his city has only 200 chemical suits for its 9,000 police officers and 3,000 firefighters.