- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 28, 2001

The D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department is "woefully" unprepared for a major hazardous-materials incident or an attack with chemical or biological weapons, according to an internal risk-assessment report obtained by The Washington Times.
Many firefighters and medical personnel who are the first to respond to such incidents do not have adequate training to recognize a specific hazard or weapon, let alone contain it, the untitled report says. It refers specifically to their weaknesses in the second and third categories of the five-level training set by federal law and the National Fire Protection Association.
"There is a failure to meet minimum performance requirements" in those two levels of hazardous-materials training, the reports states. "The current level of training is woefully inadequate with regard to the severity of risk posed to this jurisdiction."
The department has not conducted "technician" hazardous-materials training, the third level, in more than two years, a fire department source said. That training covers railroad freight disaster, such as the derailment of a CSX Corp. train in a Baltimore tunnel last month.
The report outlines how the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department could not handle a chemical- or biological-weapons attack that authorities prepare for during events such as presidential inaugurations or the upcoming protests against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, which are meeting in Washington at the end of next month.
"The operational effectiveness and safety of the department with regard to these incidents has been greatly diminished," the report states.
The problem is exacerbated because the department's only "hazmat unit" operates part time, according to the fire department source. If Engine 12 is out on a call, no one is available to respond to an incident with the hazardous-materials unit.
Chief Ronnie Few and other top officials were out of town yesterday, but the director of the D.C. Emergency Management Agency said the fire department and the city government are working with other agencies to identify and solve disaster-preparedness issues, and they've already made some headway.
The District can now work directly with Federal Emergency Management Agency headquarters in the event of a weapons-of-mass-destruction attack, rather than going through the agency's regional office in Philadelphia, he said.
And after a disaster drill last month, groups of local and federal officials now meet regularly to plan for disaster issues, such as decontamination, command structure, radio compatibility and hospital capacity, he said.
But the report also found that the D.C. fire department's equipment is deficient.
For its entire fleet, the department has fewer than four military-style kits of antidotes for common biological and chemical weapons, such as sarin, the nerve gas used in the Tokyo subway attack in 1995 that killed seven and injured about 200.
Comparatively, every medic unit in Fairfax County carries the kits, as do the hazardous-materials trucks and medical supervisors.
The report says the department does not outfit all its vehicles with gas detectors or binoculars, which would enable rescue workers to identify a hazardous material by a placard from a safe distance. Instead, some rescue workers say they would use the "blue canary" system, relying on the reactions of other personnel.
"It's a terrible thing, but if the police officers are falling over next to the scene, then you know not to go near it," one medic said.
Unlike the Metropolitan Police Department, firefighters and medics have not held drills for working in large crowds, and they have received little equipment or preparation for the two-day World Bank-IMF demonstrations that authorities anticipate will be violent, according to medics.
"The only thing we did receive is some gas masks, and some training for how to don it," said Kenneth Lyons, a paramedic and chairman of the department's medical union, AFGE Local 3721.
"We hoped there would be some additional practical, hands-on training," he said. "We haven't had any of that."
The report blames officials' lack of foresight and a budget crunch for the department's unpreparedness.
"Unfortunately, with the fiscal crisis and the misperceived risk … special operations has been reduced to a 'bare-bones' function and increased risk" for the city and the department, the report states.

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