Few agencies outside Washington buy antiterror gear for employees

As federal agencies craft plans to protect their employees from terrorism, few offices outside Washington are buying protective hoods that could help employees escape a chemical, biological, or radiological attack, according to federal officials.

In Washington, the Agency for International Development is providing its headquarters employees with escape hoods, joining the Defense Department and Office of Personnel Management as agencies that have outfitted their Washington-area employees with protective hoods or breathing masks. The Capitol Police distributed 25,000 hoods to congressional staff and members of Congress last fall. Several other agencies are weighing the benefits of protective hoods for their Washington offices.

"We are still studying what we should do," said Priscella Carey, director of the Office of Operations at the Agriculture Department. "We have lots of employees saying 'We want them,' but there has been no policy decision." The Veterans Affairs Department has formed a task force to study the hoods, but for now the department is not going to buy them, according to a VA official.

"At this point we have decided not to purchase them," said Deno Verines, director of VA's Office of Administration. The VA task force is concerned that many hoods on the market only protect against certain agents, he said.

But outside the nation's capital, the question of whether to buy hoods has stirred less debate. In many regions, it is not a major concern of federal preparedness planners. "We've not planned for the hoods here in Oklahoma," said LeAnn Jenkins, director of the Federal Executive Board in Oklahoma City, Okla., which has published several guides to help federal agencies prepare for possible terrorist attacks. In New York City, officials were unaware of any federal agencies that were buying hoods.

"We would know if somebody were proposing to do that, but I have not heard of any effort," said Michael Beeman, a spokesman with the Federal Emergency Management Agency in New York. Cynthia Gable, executive director of the Federal Executive Board in New York, said she had not heard of any federal agencies in New York purchasing hoods.

Federal Executive Board directors in Minneapolis, St. Louis, Dallas-Fort Worth and the state of Oregon interviewed for this story said federal agencies in their regions have not purchased hoods.

Federal offices base equipment purchases on a variety of factors, including an assessment of the risk posed by potential terrorist attacks. In Oregon, for example, federal officials have recommended that offices have a three-day supply of food and water on hand in case employees have to "shelter in place," or remain in their offices because of a terrorist attack.

Some agencies are waiting for guidance that could help them decide whether to buy hoods. The Federal Protective Service, the Homeland Security agency that protects federal buildings, has not endorsed any escape hoods for governmentwide use, according to spokesman Chris Bentley. Bentley added that the Interagency Security Committee, a General Services Administration-led body that sets standards for federal building security, plans to write a "position paper" that could provide some guidance.

Mike Orenstein, a spokesman with the Office of Personnel Management, said another interagency committee is crafting a checklist that agencies can use in deciding whether to purchase hoods. This committee, which has no name, includes representatives from OPM, GSA, the Social Security Administration, and the Energy and Labor departments, he said.

Officials said they have not received any governmentwide guidance to date on whether to buy hoods. "We have been looking for some additional central agency guidance for us on the issue," said the Agriculture Department's Carey.

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