- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 9, 2002

The District is vulnerable to a biochemical attack because its hazardous materials team is composed of firefighters whose training is inadequate and whose gear is so worn out that they fear for their safety, according to a report on the city's emergency preparedness.

The report, submitted by the Marasco Newton Group in December, found the city's hazardous-materials unit deficient in all 10 criteria it measured, including staffing, training and competency.

It recommended that the unit "needs improvement" or "needs significant improvement" in all areas.

"Although many of the [crew members] were dedicated firefighters, the existing HAZMAT unit suffers from a lack of funding, training, staffing, equipment and top fire management support," the report says. "A number of [those] assigned to the unit expressed concern for their own safety and their ability to provide a competent response to the community."

The report said "a number of outside agencies" shared "concerns regarding the safety and competencies of the hazardous materials unit within [the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services]."

The team of six specialists who prepared the report talked with representatives from the Secret Service, the FBI, the U.S. Capitol Police, and emergency officials from Northern Virginia and Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

Among the report's findings:

• The city's hazardous materials unit is "cobbled together using overtime staff."

•Hazardous materials training is "substandard," the department has provided "little or no refresher training, and many training records are missing."

•Many department personnel that have hazardous materials training and experience have been promoted or reassigned from the unit, "thus depriving the District of valuable resources."

•Rescue vehicles carry very limited detection and decontamination equipment, and no containment equipment. Skills maintenance, including use and calibration of monitoring equipment, has been minimal.

The report was commissioned by D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams, but it has not been widely distributed in the four months since it was submitted to the city. It has been seen by D.C. Fire Chief Ronnie Few and Assistant Chief of Operations Adrian Thompson but not by Kathy Patterson, chairman of the D.C. Council's Judiciary Committee, which oversees the fire department or many other city officials.

"Whatever deficiencies the report identifies, management in the department is working to rectify," fire department spokeswoman Lisa Bass said yesterday.

Chief Few is expected to testify tomorrow before a congressional committee on the state of emergency preparedness in the District.

The 32-page report, titled "Assessment of Capability for Sustained Hazardous Materials Response for the City of Washington, D.C.," was produced for Marasco Newton by subcontractor Environmental Hazards Management Institute.

The institute's emergency-response experts read internal memos from Mr. Williams and the highest-level officials in the fire department. The team also interviewed city and federal personnel, as well as emergency officials from surrounding jurisdictions about the District's problems.

What makes the lightly-industrialized District so vulnerable to emergencies?

Apart from its symbolic attraction to terrorists, the report points out the city's role as host to emotion-laden national and international events, such as the International Monetary Fund/World Bank meetings due to start April 20. Given the violent protests that occurred two years ago, such incidents make an alert, well-trained hazardous materials team all the more important in the District.

Also, the potential for accidental biochemical spills is great. The report cites a "high" risk of a hazardous materials incident from a significant number of universities, hospitals, military and law enforcement facilities, research labs and printing and engraving plants in the city, as well as spills along well-traveled rail-freight lines.

Based on the unique design of the District, with its many traffic circles, the report says it would be hard to evacuate people from the city and to move emergency vehicles through it.

Taking into consideration the number of elderly or disabled residents, those who don't speak English and the surprising number of people who don't have telephones or vehicles, the report assesses the city's vulnerabilities as "high."

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