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9/11: WMD Preparedness Now

Since 9/11 many American law enforcement agencies have bought equipment for responding to chemical and biological attacks. But are you really ready?

September 01, 2011  |  by - Also by this author

Back seven or eight years ago when the DHS grants were first fulfilled for WMD equipment, the equipment was not subject to the same standards that it is today. Now both the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) certify air purifying respirator-style gas masks and other PPE for use during chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear events. NIOSH also sets a shelf life of typically five years for gas mask filters. Once five years has passed, the filters should be used only for training.

Which means that many of the filters purchased during the last decade by law enforcement agencies are expiring or have expired. And that's a problem for cash-strapped agencies that may not have the money to spend on WMD gear when they need other more pressing items.

Worse, even the respirators themselves have a finite shelf life. Wilcox says that Avon Protection's masks are designed for at least 10 years of storage under the proper conditions. Unfortunately, as with much police gear, PPE is rarely stored under the proper conditions. "Officers tend to have this equipment in bags in the trunks of their cars or in storage areas in boxes. It's not stored in the proper environmental conditions, and it's not receiving the level of care and maintenance that it needs. They should store them in a dry, cool environment and check them regularly," he says.

OSHA requires that gas masks be fitted once per year to the face of the individual who will have to wear it in a hazardous materials environment. Wilcox says that's a good time to check the health of your gas masks. "You want to look for degradation of the rubber and visors. You also want to check the valves for any deterioration," he explains.

Multi-Agency Response

Even the best equipped agency is unlikely to face a WMD incident alone. Protecting the public, treating the injured, and protecting other responders will require just about all of the fire, EMS, HazMat, and police resources in the community that gets hit.

Commander Jason Kepp oversees the CBRNE (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and high yield explosives) program of the Federal Protective Service (FPS). His jurisdiction is more than 9,000 federal properties nationwide, and his agency, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, has one of the most active law enforcement CBRNE programs in the country. Federal buildings, including courts and IRS offices, are major targets for terrorists and subject to numerous terrorism hoaxes. "The FPS CBRNE program was created to support the mission of the FPS to handle credible CBRNE threats or incidents involving federal properties," Kepp says.

Kepp's advice to agencies nationwide is to build working relationships now before an incident occurs. "The first time for me to meet a D.C. police official is not when we have an incident inside a federal building," he says. "We need to sit across the table from each other and meet and discuss how we're going to battle this together in advance of having to do it. We rely heavily on other agencies."

One way that the FPS builds relationships with other agencies is through drills. Kepp says there are also working groups established among D.C.-area public safety agencies, and they meet on a regular basis.

Outside of D.C., the FPS protects federal properties in every state and territory, and its WMD activities are organized by WMD coordinators working out of regional FPS offices. "FPS WMD coordinators conduct outreach and maintain intelligence-focused relationships with federal, state, and local counterparts. They serve as subject matter experts in CBRNE incidents. They also assess and address WMD threats and risks reported to the regional office," Kepp explains.

And should a WMD incident occur, FPS regional coordinators will work with local law enforcement over secure communication lines and even on scene as "boots on the ground" with other federal agencies.

Any place where a WMD incident occurs is likely to see a lot of boots on the ground from many different agencies and even the military. National Guard units nationwide often have CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear) response teams trained to respond to incidents in civilian areas. And once they are ordered on scene by a governor, they can help local law enforcement with a number of tasks.

But Kepp and other experts caution local agencies against expecting help to arrive instantaneously. It will take time to get DHS, FBI, and Guard response on scene. "In reality when we deal with a WMD event, it will be a local event; it will be a local problem. It will start at the local level and end at the local level."

Are You Ready?

Note that Kepp says "when" not "if" a WMD terror attack occurs. He and many other experts believe such an occurrence is likely in the near future. (See "Can It Happen Here?")

Given this disturbing conclusion, American law enforcement's preparedness for such an event has to be assessed. None of the experts consulted for this article would offer a grade on our national level of preparedness for a WMD attack. But they all say that law enforcement has better resources and training now than it did a decade ago.

"I think American officers are now much better prepared than they were 10 years ago," says Avon's Protection's Wilcox. "There is a level of awareness and a base level of protection equipment available to protect first responders."

The problem faced by American law enforcement is that as the images of the burning towers fade in the public's memory there may be much less support to spend money on personal protective equipment that may never be used. That means five years from now or a decade from now, America may be much less capable of handling a WMD attack on one of its communities.

Kepp cautions against such complacency. "Our adversaries are out there. They are trying to do this. And they are very patient," he says.

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