Share this article

print logo

LOCAL AGENCIES TRAINING <br> FOR BIOTERRORIST THREAT

The Erie County Water Authority samples its water more often. Video cameras will soon watch over the agency's two treatment plants.

After the tragic events at the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the threat of terrorism doesn't seem so distant. And local organizations and agencies such as the Water Authority are planning for more than conventional attacks.

The potential use of biological and chemical weapons no longer seems far-fetched.

Indeed, on Sept. 8, three days before planes were used as missiles to bring down the twin towers, more than 200 rescue workers participated in a drill at Buffalo Niagara International Airport based on the premise that a bomb had exploded on a jet filled with passengers and on which terrorists had placed a biological weapon.

"What happened the other week is scary. It struck home. But we're constantly training. We're preparing as much as we can," said Dean Messing, Erie County's deputy commissioner of disaster preparedness.

A recent report by the United States Commission on National Security in the 21st Century singled out bioweapons as perhaps the greatest threat that the country might face in the next century.

Starting with 1996 federal legislation, a variety of national initiatives began to address bioterrorism. An initial round of training and equipment grants in the late 1990s went to "first-responders" in 120 large cities across the country, including the Buffalo area.

The federal government also has begun to take such steps as stockpiling medications at regional warehouses across the country.

Reports and studies in recent years have questioned whether the efforts have been well coordinated and extensive enough to handle a large disaster. Now, after the painful experience of the Sept. 11 attacks, local officials expect more attention to be paid to the potential for terrorism with weapons of mass destruction and more federal funds to prepare for it.

Erie County is a good example of how initiatives are developing in communities across the country.

A task force on domestic preparedness was formed in 1999 and includes five teams devoted to responding to hazardous materials, including those from the county, city and its suburbs. Other task force members are the county Sheriff's Department, the FBI and a group of physicians trained to respond to unique medical situations.

The county and city also have agreed to form a Metropolitan Medical Response System, one of many such systems being created nationwide with federal aid to help hospitals and doctors prepare to handle mass injuries without overwhelming a local health care system.

The work of the medical response system would include coordinating patient triage in the field, especially if decontamination were necessary, and ensuring hospitals have enough medications on hand to handle an emergency until more supplies can be obtained from national caches.

"You want to make sure that what you do starts in the field and that doctors are available to take care of the rescuers," said Dr. Anthony Billittier IV, county health commissioner and head of the group of physicians in the task force.

Those physicians -- the Specialized Medical Assistance Response Team, or SMART -- formed about five years ago to handle confined-space medicine, such as injured individuals trapped in wells or in collapsed buildings.

Since then, they have responded to anthrax scares and school bus crashes. Law enforcement agencies have asked them to provide medical support for bomb squads and SWAT teams.

"The benefit of the teams is that they give doctors a better sense of what goes on in the field, and the preparation helps us with daily care. You've beefed up coordination with other groups you may have to work with," Billittier said.

In light of the Sept. 11 attacks, Niagara County officials have become more cautious about how much information they reveal publicly about the county's security and response, fearing in-depth details would make it more susceptible to a biological incident.

"We've taken some very proactive steps to be as prepared as we can be," said Jim Volkosh, Niagara County's disaster coordinator.

Niagara County already has disaster response plans in place for any one of the numerous chemical plants throughout the county. And simply raising public awareness of the issue will go a long way to handling a chemical or biological situation should one occur, Volkosh said.

Will the region's programs, once they're fully deployed, be enough?

Experts say the answer depends partly on the type of chemical or biological agent used in a terror attack, the number of people who get sick and how ill they are.

Similarly, efforts to protect water supplies can't guarantee complete protection.

The Water Authority significantly increased the number of random samples it takes of the 65 million gallons it distributes daily to more than 135,000 customers.

That's in addition to measures already in place, such as security personnel at the treatment plants and intrusion alarms at the pump stations. The attacks also prompted officials to expedite plans to install video monitoring equipment at facilities.

"We're testing and being as diligent as we can be," said Robert Mendez, executive director of the Authority.

Many experts believe that physical destruction of a water system's facilities or disruption of a water supply is a much more likely scenario than contamination, according to a recent report by the American Water Works Association. That's because chemical or biological agents would be diluted, easier to detect and respond to, and possibly unstable in water, the association reported.

"The potential for something happening to our water is very remote, especially when you consider the dilution factor," said Mendez. "It's very difficult to have a systemwide impact."

Nevertheless, experts say it is almost impossible to completely secure a water system from bioterrorism because there are thousands of unguarded entry points, such as fire hydrants, where toxic agents could be introduced and, at a minimum, cause localized problems in a neighborhood.

Such attacks would require an understanding of hydraulics and access to a large amount of a toxic substance.

News Staff Reporter Jay Rey contributed to this report.

e-mail: hdavis@buffnews.com

There are no comments - be the first to comment