- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 17, 2001

Overwhelmed emergency-services agencies around the region are cutting back their responses to anthrax calls and asking the public to use common sense in evaluating a potential threat.
Montgomery County's Emergency Communications Center yesterday began screening calls for assistance because hazardous- materials crews have been overwhelmed since letters containing anthrax were discovered in mailrooms in Florida, New York, Nevada and the District.
"What we're trying to do is keep down the number of calls," said Derek Baliles, spokesman for Montgomery County police. "We were running calls for people who [just] got a letter that had a postmark from someplace they'd never been."
Mr. Baliles said emergency workers respond to such cases, even if it is "just to reassure people," but he pointed out that media outlets, political figures and businesses have been the recipients of the letters not individuals. Screening calls keeps hazardous-materials workers available for greater potential threats, he said.
In Fairfax County, the hazardous-materials unit responded to more than 100 calls over the weekend about suspected anthrax and is operating on a round-the-clock schedule.
"Our resources are spread very thin. We are running units all over the place. It's really stressing the system," Fairfax Fire Battalion Chief Daryl L. Louder said. "We don't want to say, 'Don't call us.' But there's no need to panic."
The tiered-response approach also is being used in Prince George's County, where fire department spokesman Mark Brady said dispatchers prioritize calls before passing them on to the bomb squad or hazardous-materials unit.
In some cases, based on the information call takers receive, people may be asked to isolate a suspicious package and sit tight.
"We are asking some people to wait until the next day before our hazardous-materials teams arrive," Mr. Brady said. "We definitely want them to continue to call us. The 911 dispatcher will extract information from the calling party, and the calling party should be guided by the instructions from the dispatcher."
Emergency workers in Prince George's County responded to 51 calls Monday and 39 by 3 p.m. yesterday. Mr. Brady said there has been a lull in the afternoons until people come home from work and check their mail.
"We'll always send somebody," he said. "As time goes on, I think the general anxiety of the public will die down a little bit."
D.C. hazardous-materials crews handled at least 35 calls yesterday and have no plans to scale back their response.
"We respond to a [hazardous-ma[JUMP]terials] call the same way we did before Sept. 11," D.C. fire department spokesman Alan Etter said.
"What we're asking the public to do is not panic and use their good judgment."
Mr. Etter added that the D.C. fire department has the luxury of having simultaneous response with several federal agencies, including the FBI.
Arlington County officials met last night to discuss the handling of hazardous-materials calls and decided they would not change their response to such calls.
Mr. Baliles said the "qualifying questions" that determine whether a call should be forwarded to the fire department in Montgomery County include whether a letter or package is leaking or whether any residue has fallen out.
In lower-priority cases, in which people simply receive an unexpected letter or package, police can usually resolve the matter by phoning the sender or tracking the package through the shipping company.
The FBI says letters or packages with no return address, misspelled words, foreign postmarks, extra postage, oily stains, or excessive tape or string are all grounds for suspicion.

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