- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 2, 2003

This is not the first time Washington has prepared for war, but efforts to protect the nation's capital, the capital of the free world, are proceeding in ways that Americans have never seen. Missile launchers surrounding the city and police patrolling with assault rifles are alarming sights for residents because until the attacks of September 11, 2001, few had even considered an assault on the U.S. mainland, much less ways to prevent one.
But the terrorist attacks have changed that perception, and perhaps nobody has made the point as poignantly as President Bush.
"Before September 11, if you can remember that far back, we all thought oceans could protect us from attack," he said recently. "But everything changed on that morning. … We must do everything in our power to stop an enemy from coming here to hurt us. That's our first task."
Although missile launchers, police officers carrying automatic weapons and Black Hawk helicopters whirring over the District are the most obvious signs that the United States is preparing for a war with Iraq, officials have also created an invisible yet extensive security network.
"As the nation steps up its security, we've ramped up ours as we move closer to war," said U.S. Capitol Police Chief Terrence W. Gainer.
Police are working with such agencies as the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. Treasury Department to track and catch terrorists through such movements as credit-card transactions and money transfers. And the FBI leads weekly conference calls to share intelligence with more than a dozen other federal and local agencies.
D.C. police and Metro officials have implemented several measures to reduce the risk of an attack, particularly spotting one in progress.
Metro officials say they have a "military action plan" to protect the roughly 1.2 million bus and subway commuters each workday a plan that includes a network of cameras, the digital tracking of buses and officers trained to respond to a terrorist attack.
"If something should happen around the world while you and I are asleep, we've given some very specific instructions to our personnel of how to respond," said Metro Transit Police Chief Polly Hanson. "We have a plan in place in the event that the United States would engage in military action."
Still, she said the key to protecting riders, stations, buses and the rails is having a highly visible police force that can spot suspicious behavior, then respond quickly.
Officers carry portable chemical detectors, and several subway stations are equipped with devices that can detect a chemical or biological attack.
Metro officials have also removed recycling bins from stations to keep terrorists from planting bombs and have replaced trash receptacles with "explosion containment" cans in its 83 rail stations. Knowing that explosives can be disguised as something left behind on a subway car or bus seat, officials have 10 bomb-sniffing dogs and have trained officers on how to spot "suspicious" or unattended packages.
Metro is not the only agency using cameras to watch Washington.
The Metropolitan Police Department and federal government have more than 14 cameras focused on such potential terrorist sites as the White House, Capitol Hill and the monuments. Officials say they hope they can soon use fiber optics to link cameras from every agency to one command center.
Meanwhile, school administrators, merchants and even nightclub owners are beefing up security as families are stockpiling food and water, and purchasing plastic sheets and duct tape to seal off their homes from a biological or chemical attack.
But the city and its roughly 700,000 residents and workers have yet to panic, even through a weeklong stretch last month in which the threat of terrorist attack led federal officials to raise the security threat to Code Orange, which was lowered last week to Yellow.
"We're practiced, not panicked," said Chief Gainer of the U.S. Capitol Police. "We have very good intelligence links with national and international organizations. … We're ready for the worst and hoping for the best. We learned a ton after September 11."
That day has had an effect on Americans much like the one more than a half-century ago when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
Still, the anxiety and security measures after September 11 may never rival what went on after Pearl Harbor. Then, for example, the National Zoo, reportedly planned to exterminate its poisonous snakes should the Capital be attacked and the reptiles set loose.
Learning from the pros
With hopes of improving security, Chief Gainer, Metropolitan Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey and Van A. Harp, head of the FBI's Washington field office, recently traveled to Israel for a crash course on how Israeli police fight terrorism.
They listened to detailed accounts of attacks and toured a Tel Aviv disco in which a suicide bomber killed more than 20 persons in June 2001. Chief Ramsey called the trip "invaluable."
"They have so much more experience in dealing with this than we do," he said.
Chief Ramsey and Chief Gainer said they were especially interested in how Israeli police balance anti-terrorism efforts with the daily mission of fighting crime.
One trick is to keep several lights atop police cruisers flashing at all times, now an everyday sight in the District.
"It might confuse some people. I think that's a small price to pay to increase our visibility," Chief Gainer said.
He said another technique is arming police officers with assault rifles.
"I hope its a strong deterrent if a wandering terrorist thinks he can challenge one of our officers," said Chief Gainer. "If the deterrence doesn't work, it gives our officers what I hope will be overwhelming firepower. You don't want to come to a firefight with just a side arm."
In June, U.S. Capitol Police ordered 25,000 gas masks to protect workers and visitors from biological or chemical attacks.
The masks equipped with a yellow hood, a plastic face covering, a nosepiece clamp and a filter to restrict noxious fumes are stored like fire extinguishers around Capitol Hill, including in the Hart Senate Office Building where anthrax-laced letters were sent in October 2001.
The Defense Department also purchased 80,000 masks that were being distributed last week at the Pentagon and 46 other buildings in the area.
The masks cost $150 apiece and enable employees, contractors and visitors to exit buildings poisoned with chemicals or biological toxins. Some of the masks will be signed out to employees at the Pentagon and the other buildings, and the remainder will be stored throughout the Pentagon for visitors.
Hospitals braced for casualties
District, Maryland and Virginia hospital administrators say they are also ready for biological, radiological or chemical attacks that can cause mass causalities.
"We'd like to think that we are prepared as we can be for the unexpected," said Julie Hoffman, a Prince George's Hospital Center vice president and safety officer.
One improvement is administrators have rewritten or upgraded security plans to help medical personnel quickly respond to hundreds of patients wounded in an attack.
"We were always equipped to handle injuries caused by large house fires, train wrecks, or plane crashes," said Dr. John Sverha, a director of emergency services at the Arlington-based Virginia Hospital Center, which treated dozens of Pentagon employees injured September 11.
"But we were never focused on exposure to botulism, sarin gas or having to treat more than 100 people all at once," said Dr. Sverha, who also is chairman of the hospital's Emergency Preparedness Committee. "It's something new every day, and we're focused now on dealing with mass casualties."
Area hospitals have also formed alliances enabling them to transfer patients and share staff, equipment and supplies. Many have purchased extra hazardous-material suits and decontamination equipment to treat victims of "weapons of mass exposure," such as a "dirty bombs."
There have also been emergency drills so doctors, nurses and technicians could learn how to respond quickly to emergencies. And hospitals including the Virginia Hospital Center are developing smallpox response teams, whose members will be among the first to be vaccinated.
Emergency Department physicians at Inova Fairfax Hospital, one of the area's largest, said they have taken a "hazards approach" to handling a disaster, with their focus on clearing beds quickly and treating the wounded while protecting the staff.
Dan Hafling, chairman of the hospital's Disaster Medicine Department, said Inova's four hospitals and medical centers each have enough shower heads and shower beds to decontaminate as many as 500 people an hour. Before September 11, each had just one or two.
"We need to be prepared for everything," said Dr. Hafling, co-chairman of the Inova Health System's Disaster Preparedness Task Force. "Are we ready? We are prepared, but does that mean that we can rest on our accomplishments? No, we have many, many other things that we need to accomplish."
Skies over the capital
One need not spend much time in Washington before noticing the aerial patrols by two UH-60A Black Hawk helicopters and two Cessna Citation planes, flown by U.S. Customs Service pilots patrolling a roughly 30-mile radius around the Washington Monument.
The Federal Aviation Administration monitors commercial plane traffic inside restricted airspace, and the customs pilots are responsible for smaller private aircraft.
"If all else fails, and we think the guy is a threat, we call the Department of Defense, they call Andrews Air Force Base and Andrews will scramble a couple of F-16s," said Kevin Bell, a customs spokesman. "I know that if I were a pilot and I saw a couple of F-16s next to me, I would want to get the heck out of Dodge pretty quick."
Officials said there have been about 10 accidental incursions in the restricted airspace during the past three weeks, typically when the pilot of a small plane goes slightly off course.
Meanwhile, the skies are being protected from the ground by U.S. Army Avenger missiles, with at least one positioned near the Capitol.
Schools are prepared
School administrators in the District, Maryland and Virginia talk as if they are coping with the realities of war.
They vow to protect staff and students even if it means stopping parents from picking up their children immediately after an attack.
"We have heightened police presence everywhere," said a spokeswoman for the Prince George's County school system. "There has been heightened vigilance pretty much since September 11."
The school districts are also reviewing plans that state what teachers, instructors and administrators should do to maintain order. That means that if an attack occurs, the ventilation must be switched off and schools must be immediately locked so nobody gets in or out.
Students would remain with teachers and staff in their assigned classrooms, with doors and windows shut, until officials receive further instructions from the Homeland Security Department.
Linda Rigsby, mother of three and a member of the Montgomery County Council of PTAs, said she is satisfied that schools will operate in a lockdown mode.
"From a structural point of view, the schools are safe buildings," she said. "It would be less safe to have parents going in and out … having gone through September 11 and the Washington area snipers last fall, I believe the schools have mechanisms in place to keep parents up-to-date and children safe."
Such plans were in place before September 11, but some districts are updating them to include responses to biological, nuclear and chemical attacks. Fairfax County schools have stocked food, water and medical supplies.
Though D.C. officials are ready to decontaminate students who come into contact with potentially deadly chemicals, Prince George's County and other school districts hold no emergency safety drills.
Some officials think schools need to be safer and have asked U.S. lawmakers for legislation to improve terrorism training and information sharing among districts or agencies.
In July, a national survey of 658 school resource officers found that 95 percent of them thought their schools were vulnerable to terrorism, and 79 percent reported that their schools are not prepared for an attack.
One-third of them also said their training opportunities decreased after the September 11 attacks, and that 77 percent of their teachers and support staff have not received terrorism-specific training, according to the survey by the National Association of School Resource Officers, the country's largest professional association for school resource officers. The association represents more than 10,000 school-based police officers nationwide.
"Police officers must be ever-vigilant in their preparedness as first responders to terrorist acts," said Sgt. Sean Burke, the association's president and a supervisor with the Lawrence Police Department in Massachusetts. "Given the proper resources and support, our school-based officers are one of the nation's greatest assets for preventing terrorist attacks on our schools."
Curt Lavarello, the association's executive director, said cuts and proposed cuts in federal and state budgets will set back efforts to make schools safer.
Epilogue to awareness
While the preparation continues, President Bush and several top federal officials have during the past two weeks tried to calm residents who might have overreacted to the warnings.
Senior administration officials said they have received no new reports about a attack and think the threat abated when the Muslim pilgrimage, or hajj, ended in mid-February.
When President Bush recently announced that the FBI and CIA would move their counterterrorism divisions into one location he said, "There is no such thing as a perfect security against a hidden network of cold-blooded terrorists. Yet … we are not going to wait until the worst dangers are upon us. We're going to protect you We're doing everything in our power to make sure the homeland is secure."
Denise Barnes contributed to this report.

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