News

National Guard preparing for the worst

by Master Sgt. Bob Haskell

ARLINGTON, Va. (Army News Service, June 15, 1998) -- National Guard officials were all ears as experts from across the country studied the ways and means of dealing with weapons of mass destruction June 8 and 9 here.

The upshot from the first conference of its kind hosted by the National Guard Bureau was that a lot of people, especially first responders, need a lot of training to cope with biological, chemical and even nuclear attacks on the homeland by terrorists who do not play by anybody's rules.

"Five people don't leave a big footprint," warned FBI supervisor Basil Doyle. "We have no intelligence indicating that terrorist groups are preparing weapons of mass destruction in this country. But we had no intelligence before the Oklahoma City and World Trade Center bombings."

"This is clearly a critically important study of a critically important issue," Charles Cragin, assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs, charged nearly 150 police and fire officials, physicians, clergy, educators and government leaders who deliberated at the Army National Guard's Readiness Center.

"Weapons of mass destruction and cyber-terrorism are the Achilles heal of the United States," Cragin said. "We will be attacked, if we are attacked, at our weakest point. We are most vulnerable here in the homeland."

The conference generated far more questions than it produced answers for the Guard Bureau that must report the results of a $10 million study to Congress in September.

The group will meet again in Virginia in late July.

No one in June claimed to have cornered the market in dealing with disasters as catastrophic as the first atomic bombs.

"Weapons of mass destruction is first and foremost in the minds of the American people right now," said Lt. Gen. Edward Baca, chief of the National Guard Bureau. "This is a learning experience for us, to learn what we need to do to assist you."

Maj. Gen. Roger Schultz, the new director of the Army National Guard, was even more direct.

"The military is inclined to take charge," he said, punctuating his points with a cocked thumb and finger. "That has caused a bit of tension within the response community. That was not our intent."

Schultz has recently finished a nine-month Pentagon tour as the Army's deputy director of military support that coordinates military support to state and local governments in times of disaster.

President Clinton has bounced the weapons of mass destruction ball into the National Guard's court with his recent announcement that 10 states have been selected to activate 22-member rapid assessment teams of full-time Guard personnel beginning in October.

Those states are California, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas and Washington. They were selected, explained Defense Secretary William Cohen, based on threat assessment, high-value targets, the availability of the Guard's airlift assets, proximity to federal emergency resources and affiliations with adjoining states.

But what will the teams assess? How many police and firemen who are first on the scene will be put in harm's way? How much training should they have? How quickly can the first responders count on federal help? Who will be in charge? And just what is a weapons of mass destruction incident?

Those were some of the complex issues debated at length during the two days in Virginia.

Biological agents, for example, are considered 43 percent of the threat level, pointed out the FBI's Doyle, because agents such as anthrax may not be immediately obvious. They are the hardest to detect and the hardest to combat, he explained.

The experts, split into eight different working groups, did agree on some basic points. One was that there are no experts on the subject in this country.

Another was that the system for dealing with terrorist attacks is already in place. Local, state and federal agencies have worked together many times in the past while dealing with floods, hurricanes, riots and this year's El Nino driven storms, many pointed out.

But there is no national strategy for educating the American people about the threat or coping with large numbers of casualties.

Leaders must create a national vision for dealing with weapons of mass destruction.

"We are in our infancy of trying to identify these issues," said George Foresman, assistant coordinator for Virginia's Department of Emergency Services.

"We have the structure, but we do not have adequate resources in this country to deal with large numbers of contaminated or exposed individuals," he pointed out.

"There is a lack of public education for preparing for the unthinkable," observed Dr. George Buck from Florida's St. Petersburg Junior College. "We had 167 people killed in Oklahoma, but we've never had 500,000 people killed. That's what we need to prepare for."

As complicated as the issues may be, the group appreciated Federal Emergency Management Agency coordinator Michael Austin's assessment of why weapons of mass destruction events are different from natural disasters.

People cause them. They provoke fear and perhaps panic. They may be invisible. They may demand special protective actions. They may spread contamination to wide areas.

Therefore, despite the uncertainties of dealing with the unknown, Austin said, "we have to work faster and get out there quicker."

Determining the best ways to do that is what the June and July meetings in Virginia are all about.

Those who took part in the June meetings thought the National Guard Bureau had made a good start.

"There has been a better quality of discussion here over the last couple of days than I've heard in a long time," observed Foresman. "If anyone thinks we have solved all of the problems, we have not. But we have to credit the National Guard Bureau for beginning the process."

(Editor's note: Haskell is with the National Guard Bureau's public affairs office in Arlington, Va.)