- The Washington Times - Friday, June 14, 2002

Local emergency agencies for months have been spending millions to acquire personal protective equipment for first responders to major terrorist attacks, including the detonation of a "dirty bomb."

"No one is as ready to respond to a dirty bomb as they would like to be, but we think we're in good shape, and we're getting better every day," said Margret Nedelkoff Kellems, deputy D.C. mayor for public safety.

Monday's arrest of a reputed American al Qaeda operative who was suspected of plotting to explode a dirty bomb an explosive device that would spread radioactive material might have served as a wake-up call to federal and local officials to educate the public about such an attack.

Local and federal emergency response authorities say if a terrorist exploded a dirty bomb in the city, they would coordinate a response that would likely include a mass evacuation of the District.

However, "for obvious national-security reasons, we cannot talk about our response capabilities," John Czwartacki, spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said when asked how FEMA would deal specifically with a dirty-bomb emergency.

Mr. Czwartacki said FEMA has been working with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments to connect with the local authorities in Virginia, Maryland and the District and prepare for a collaborated response to "all emergencies."

In the event of a dirty-bomb attack, scientists contend, it would take about one hour before the presence of a low-level radioactive element exposed the first wave of responding police and fire crews to more than the maximum safe dosage of radiation.

"When it comes to radiation, time and distance are the factors that play into your safety the most," said Alan Etter, spokesman for the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department.

Officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta stress that the amount of radiation exposure considered dangerous depends on how much and what type of radioactive material is used in the bomb.

A dirty bomb is a relatively simple creation, in which some sort of radioactive material is mixed with such conventional explosives as might be used in a car bomb. "They really are weapons of mass disruption and not weapons of mass destruction," Mr. Etter said.

When detonated, the radioactive material is sprayed into the immediate area, so how far it spreads depends on the weather and the size of the explosion.

While a dirty bomb could kill people after prolonged exposure to radiation, those first responding to an explosion should "treat the life-threatening injuries from the actual bomb blast before worrying about the radiation," said Robert C. Whitcomb Jr., a health physicist with the CDC's radiation-studies branch. "The long-term effects would be many years down the road, when you might see latent health effects. Cancer is the main long-term health effect."

In February, the District received $156 million in federal funds specifically to prepare for a major terrorist threat, Mrs. Kellems said. The focus is on buying a new level of gear, like radiation-resistant hazardous-materials suits for police and emergency medical services workers. In the past, only firefighters had such gear.

Mrs. Kellems said that since September 11, local and federal officials realize "there is a very real potential for types of attack like dirty bombs that were not considered realistic possibilities 10 months ago." She said the $156 million has been spent among several city agencies, including the police, fire, health and transportation departments.

Much of the money has been spent on developing a terror-response plan, which the District has in place now, Mrs. Kellems said.

A general version of the response plan can be viewed by the public on the city's Web site (www.washingtondc.gov), Mrs. Kellems said.

"But the very sensitive information, like maps of where the critical infrastructure and where the city's testing equipment and what type of equipment it is, is confidential for security reasons," she added.

According to recent reports, the fire department is using the money to install radiation monitors at all of the city's 34 fire stations.

Mr. Etter said D.C. firefighters are equipped with high-tech monitors that detect the presence of radioactive material, though he declined to answer whether the monitors already are being deployed on every call.

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