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Preparing for Terrorism

Attacks know no boundaries — physical or personal.

On Sept. 11, 2001, firefighters rushed to their stations without being called for duty. But what happens if they and their families are the potential victims of a terrorist attack?

That is just one of the considerations faced by those in charge of emergency preparedness at the local level. Within the Alexandria Fire Department that responsibility rests with Battalion Chief Joseph Hoffmaster and Capt. John W. North, hazmat specialist.

"We are telling our guys to have a communications plan with their families. One of the big concerns is to be able to get our people in," Hoffmaster said.

"A chemical/biological/radiological (CBR) attack would be far more regional in nature. And firefighters, like everyone else, would want to make sure their families were protected as well," North added.

Since 9/11, a variety of things have been put in place to deal with a more widespread attack, according to Hoffmaster. "We have prepared our firefighters to sustain an incident for a much longer period of time."

One of the new items in their arsenal of equipment is a "CBR Ready Bag." It contains a special protective suit, mask, boots and long-term respirator.

Different from the regular air bottles traditionally relied on by firefighters to aid their breathing, the new respirators last up to eight hours. Air bottles have a utility period of approximately 45 minutes.

"These respirators actually take the air and filter out specific contaminants. However, if we were faced with an atmosphere with less oxygen, we'd have to use the regular air bottles. Before using the respirators, we'd have to monitor the conditions to determine the type of chemicals or toxic agents and their concentration," Hoffmaster said.

"Personnel from all agencies have been trained to deal with a chemical/biological/nuclear incident," North said. "Five Ready Bags are now on each truck. There are normally four firefighters per truck. Individual bags will go to all fire personnel who would not be on a truck."

BEHIND ALL THIS NEW training and equipment is the goal to protect the public for a longer period of time if the need arises. "Since 9/11 we have attained new monitoring equipment to not only detect but also rule out potential toxic agents," North said.

"One of the things we have been doing since the anthrax scares of October 2001 is field a lot of questions," said Hoffmaster. "Part of our goal is to eliminate a lot of the fear and put the public more at rest that we are prepared."

An example of that preparedness training was the exercise at the Federal Courthouse last month known as Operation Furies. In addition to dealing with a multi-pronged incident involving a host of physical actions, the daylong exercise also concentrated on communications interaction among a variety of local and federal agencies plus the military.

One of the most advanced pieces of new equipment acquired by the department is the IR — infrared detector. Its function is to assess any foreign material to determine its properties and lethal capabilities, if any.

At a cost of $54,000 each, an IR is about the size of a suitcase. It can be placed on a table and works in conjunction with a laptop computer. The cost covers both the equipment and the training to use it. "This is just one tool in our toolbox," Hoffmaster said.

"The IR is crucial to our hazmat unit," North insisted. "The training has gone department- and city-wide."

U.S. DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE money has enabled Alexandria to increase the comprehensive scope of the training, according to Hoffmaster. It has received grants for both equipment and training.

"During Operation Furies we found our terminologies had to be standardized. What we call a certain specialist is not necessarily what another organization calls that position," Hoffmaster explained.

"Prior to all this new training we really didn't concentrate on coordinated communications. Now communications have been greatly increased at the national, state and local levels," North said.

Citizens should not overreact, Hoffmaster stressed. "They should take the same precautions they would if a bad storm were forecast. Have about three days of food and water. Make sure they have any prescription medicines needed on hand. And have flashlights, a battery-powered radio and other necessities readily available."

"We are following the FEMA guidelines," North pointed out.

In addition to the IR, Alexandria Fire Department will be getting another Hazmat Response Unit. "This will enable us to carry more equipment that is also more sophisticated in its capabilities," Hoffmaster revealed. "It's been approved, and we hope to have it within the next six months."