1998 Congressional Hearings
Special Weapons
Nuclear, Chemical, Biological and Missile


 

MILITARY RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT SUBCOMMITTEE
OF THE
HOUSE COMMITTEE ON NATIONAL SECURITY
-----

"FEDERAL RESPONSE TO DOMESTIC TERRORISM
INVOLVING WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION
TRAINING FOR FIRST RESPONDERS"

MARCH 21, 1999

Written Testimony By:
MARIO H. TREVIŅO, FIRE CHIEF

CITY OF LAS VEGAS
DEPARTMENT OF FIRE SERVICES

Incident Overview:

On February 18, 1998, the Las Vegas Community experienced an incident involving the threat of a significant quantity of Bacillus Anthracis, a bacteria that causes the disease Anthrax, in the control of a known white supremacist. Acting on a tip, the Federal Bureau of Investigation placed two men under surveillance and stopped them in Henderson, Nevada, in the Las Vegas Valley. It was suspected that an explosive delivery system could be present.

In response to the incident, local fire and police worked cooperatively with the F.B.I., Nellis Air Force Base, and the U.S. Army Technical Escort Unit (T.E.U.), in an effort to apprehend the suspects and contain the substance. During the initial phase of the incident, the F.B.I. requested that the Las Vegas Fire Department Bomb Squad, or the Fire Department Hazardous Materials Team, take custody of the substance. The L.V.F.D. Bomb Squad Commander declined, noting that the Bomb Squad would only become involved if an explosive delivery system were present, and that the Haz-Mat Team involvement was indicated if there was an actual or potential release of the agent. The Bomb Squad Commander stood-by throughout the incident and maintained contact with fire administration and the Fire Alarm Center. The Clark County Haz-Mat Unit was dispatched and also stood-by until being released by the F.B.I.

The material in question was located in a vehicle, which was secured and wrapped in plastic by the Explosives Ordinance Disposal (E.O.D.) team from Nellis Air Force Base, and removed to Nellis. No explosive device was discovered.

The F.B.I. had two suspects transported, via private ambulance, to University Medical Center. However, the hospital was not pre-notified of their arrival, and neither the hospital nor the ambulances were prepared to handle them. The patients were not de-contaminated, as outlined in the hospital's emergency plan, thereby exposing the region's only Level 1 Trauma Center to contamination.

The F.B.I. did an outstanding job of handling a rapidly evolving incident. Less than 12 hours after receiving their information, the two suspects were in custody and the suspected biological agent was safely isolated. F.B.I. agents in charge of the incident maintained strict security, and no information was released to the media or the public until a press conference was held the following day.

In the final analysis, the material was determined to be a non-toxic veterinary-grade vaccine, not the military-grade Anthrax virus that was initially reported. However, the incident raised some questions and issues regarding our readiness and capabilities in the area of Weapons of Mass Destruction in general, and Biological Weapons in particular.

Lessons Learned Include:

State of Preparedness:

The Las Vegas Fire Department is actively involved in preparing for emergencies and disasters; normally, threats in this area have to do with weather phenomena, earthquakes, large-scale fires, building collapse, and other similar situations. The L.V.F.D. Bomb Squad (the only one in Southern Nevada) works closely with federal agencies, including the Department of Defense, in explosive device management, and stands ready to react to conventional explosives effectively. Further, the L.V.F.D. staffs a Hazardous Materials Team, which is trained and capable of mitigating spills and leaks of chemicals and other toxic materials normally experienced. In the event of a significant spill or fire involving Hazardous Materials, an Automatic Aid Agreement exists with the Clark County Fire Department, which also staffs a Haz-Mat Team. In essence, local resources have been capable of responding to and handling incidents occurring to date.

Clearly, no fire department would be able to mitigate an event such as a nuclear explosion. Similarly, a terrorist attack with a significantly sized Biological Weapon would overwhelm even the largest fire department. However, it must be noted that any emergency that occurs on domestic soil will generate a response from local fire and police. The Anthrax scare experience supports this assumption. The issue raised is the level of training, equipment, and inoculation that these first-responders will have in such an event. This deficit in the preparedness of the Las Vegas Fire Department is not atypical; cities and counties do not have the financial means to perform this function, since they are normally tasked with preparing for more common emergencies.

Legislation, such as the Superfund Amendments and Re-Authorization Act (S.A.R.A.) Title III, require local fire departments to prepare for and respond to leaks and spills of hazardous materials. Incidents have occurred which have escalated to a scale that required a D.O.D. response; notably, however, in each instance local fire and police personnel have responded and have initiated evacuation and/or mitigation procedures. This concept parallels the issue at hand in that fire and police first responders, with appropriate training, must work cooperatively with the D.O.D., and other federal agencies, in the resolution of terrorist strikes, up to and including the use of Weapons of Mass Destruction.

Training to Date:

The Las Vegas Fire Department has participated in several training programs on Terrorism:

More in-depth training is needed; this was made clear during the Anthrax scare incident. One product of the 1996 Defense Against Weapons of Mass Destruction Act (Nunn-Lugar) has been a series of domestic preparedness training sessions. A tentative schedule for these sessions printed in the Emergency Preparedness News noted a training session to be held in Las Vegas on January 12-16, 1998. The Emergency Management Coordinator for the Las Vegas Fire Department spoke with Howard Levitin, the indicated contact person, seeking participation. However, he was told by Levitin that this was an "invitation only" session, and the L.V.F.D. could not be included due to "security concerns." To date, department staff have been unable to identify when and if such training will be made available. To conduct domestic preparedness training sessions and exclude local fire departments is a questionable practice, at best.

All of the above are beneficial and effective sources of information. However, even in concert with each other, they fail to provide fire departments with the necessary minimum level of training. Staff from the Las Vegas Fire Department have actively sought whatever training is available on the issue of terrorism, as evidenced by the above. Again, this is not a unique situation; fire and emergency departments from across the country are attempting to arm themselves with as much knowledge and training on those topics as possible.

Conclusions:

It is becoming increasingly evident that domestic terrorism is on the rise. Cities such as Las Vegas, which are widely recognized and can be symbolic of the American culture, pose ready and alluring targets for terrorists wishing to make anti-American statements. Previous examples of this include the New York World Trade Center Bombing and the Bombing of the Oklahoma Federal Building. The close proximity of Nellis Air Force Base, itself a tempting target, exacerbates rather than mitigates this potential to target Las Vegas. The proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction in the control of subversive people and groups is a real threat; in the case of chemical and biological weaponry, devices capable of massive mortality and morbidity are impossible to control due to their facile availability. Only a willingness to make and deploy them is necessary.

The outcome of the Anthrax incident in Las Vegas was innocuous. However, it should serve as a portent of possible future incidents. Optimally, this community, as well as others, will use this as an inexpensive lesson learned. We must continue to pursue whatever training, funding, technology, and equipment that is available to help prepare. The most important needs of first responders are:

It is imperative that the federal government assist local authorities in this preparation. Increased funding for the National Fire Academy should be seriously considered, with the caveat that funding for current programs not be affected.

Tools afforded to the Department of Defense, such as specialized training, equipment, and immunization, should be imparted to local agencies, either directly or "passing through" D.O.D. agencies.

Lastly, direct funding for local agencies should be considered, possibly through a model similar to the well organized Urban Search and Rescue Program, cooperatively funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and local agencies. It must be reiterated that local agencies are not capable of budgeting for adequate terrorism preparedness. Only through an intensive nation-wide effort can first responders become the rescuers, and not the victims, of upcoming catastrophic events.