'First responders' to terrorism seek federal strategy, equipment

A national training standard should be established and maintained by the federal government for first responders who are poorly prepared and equipped to recognize or respond to a weapon of mass destruction attack, emergency officials told a congressional subcommittee yesterday.

The United States should also ensure that first responders possess equipment that is lightweight, mobile and easy to use, federal, state and local officials told the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Procurement.

With the White House fiscal 2003 budget requesting $3.5 billion for first responders--a figure Congress is expected to approve, or perhaps boost--officials want to ensure the funds are not squandered on the "wrong" equipment and that limited personnel resources are not wasted on incomplete or redundant training.

"Far too many departments across the nation lack even the most basic levels of training, equipment and manpower," said Peter Gorman, a New York Fire Department captain who represents the International Association of Firefighters. "The needs are tremendous and can no longer be borne solely by local jurisdictions. The federal government must help shoulder this burden."

"We desperately need the federal government's assistance in setting standards, evaluating equipment and sharing that information with local law enforcement," said Washington, D.C., police Chief Charles Ramsey.

"In large departments such as ours, training represents a monumental undertaking," Ramsey continued. "Our ability to adequately train our officers and to respond effectively to terrorist attacks would be vastly enhanced by the development of training standards."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency now operates a national training center in New Mexico for first responders--firefighters, police, ambulance crews, doctors and other local emergency officials--but only a limited number of emergency crews are able to attend these seminars.

The center also does not set a national strategy for first responders, nor does it follow up on groups who have gone through its program, the officials testified.

"Without clear goals, we risk undermining ourselves while wasting our precious resources," said Edward Plaugher, chief of the Arlington County Fire Department in Virginia, which oversees the Pentagon and other key federal facilities.

"We as a nation have to date lacked a comprehensive national strategy with respect to our preparedness effort," he added. "We believe that a strategy should be developed and adopted that includes a single point of contact for first responders."

Federal officials echoed the sentiments of their local counterparts, testifying that first responders would benefit from national guidance for training and equipment purchases.

Police and emergency crews of all sorts need to be taught to at least recognize and report potential incidents involving weapons of of mass destruction, not only react to them, officials said.

"Saturating first responders will not equate to improved capability," said John McBroom, director of the office of emergency operations for the Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration. "They must be given capability to detect radiological materials and provided with timely technical information and evacuation advice."

The NNSA maintains 28 teams of radiological specialists dispersed through the country and 10 prototype "Tricorders" devices that, when placed near a suspect item, can collect information that can be transmitted for radiation analyses by an on-call expert. The Tricorders will soon be sent to selected FBI bomb squads across the country for further testing, McBroom said.

NNSA leaders believe the Tricorder may provide the "needed link between the first responder and national response assets," he said.

Emergency personnel should also benefit from a host of other new high-tech devices, including wearable technologies such as small radiation detectors used by U.S. Customs inspectors and thermal sightings and Global Positioning System units currently being battle-tested by U.S. Special Operations troops in Afghanistan, said subcommittee Chairman Curt Weldon, R-Pa.

"This is the first step in ending the shortcomings for our domestic defenders," said Weldon, who served as volunteer firefighter chief before election to Congress. "It is truly ridiculous that we spend millions of dollars to develop technology for our military … and we don't share the same lifesaving technology with our domestic defenders."

The preparedness of various states, cities and localities for a terrorist attack varies drastically, a gap that must be closed by standardized training and monitoring overseen by a single federal government agency, the officials testified.

At a bare minimum, every firefighter, police officer and emergency medical provider should be trained in the basics of an attack involving a weapon of mass destruction, said Plaugher. Firefighters in particular need to undergo such training because their current training for fires and other emergencies sometimes conflicts with how they should respond to a terrorist incident, he added. Such training should also not leave smaller municipalities out, officials said.

"There have been millions of dollars allocated for the training, equipping and exercising of response teams in our largest cities, however, little has reached rural and suburban America where the threats are as real and as dangerous," said William Jenaway, chief of fire and rescue services of King of Prussia, Pa.

"These non-metropolitan areas are where our water supplies reside, our basic industry and food production lie, and where much of our electrical power and natural resources are," Jenaway added.

Much of the federal funds slated for first responders should also be used to purchase basic equipment such as gas masks, chemical and biological protection suits and decontamination equipment, officials testified.

"Other equipment needs include explosive mitigation devices, including bomb suits and containment vessels, chemical and biological threat detection equipment to accurately sample and monitor the environment, and specialized vehicles for transporting personnel and equipment into and through contaminated areas," said Ramsey.

While much of the $3.5 billion White House officials have earmarked for first responders will surely be spent on equipment, much of it should also go toward training--the standards of which should be established federal specialists, officials said. Any such training programs should also have follow-on activities so that first responders retain what they've learned, the officials said.