New York readies plans to counter terrorist attacks Program includes germ detectors, hospital deals, accords on drugs

July 26, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - Long viewed as one of the world's most attractive targets for terrorists, New York City has quietly undertaken an ambitious effort to counter attacks carried out with deadly chemicals or germs, according to city officials.

The city is buying germ detectors, working out deals with regional hospitals for emergency care, striking unusual accords with drug companies to make medicines quickly in an emergency and taking steps to stockpile medications, officials say.

Although no specific threat of a germ or chemical attack has been detected recently, the city has undertaken an extensive training program since September, instructing about 4,000 city police officers and firefighters in how to handle such an emergency. Next week, about 1,500 doctors and nurses in New York are to be trained by outside medical experts.

Emergency planners face bewildering problems in preparing to deal with germ attacks, the foremost being how to tell if sudden outbreaks of illness are natural or purposeful. Malicious strikes are hard to detect rapidly since deadly microbes might incubate in human bodies for hours, weeks or even months before causing widespread havoc.

A planner's nightmare

Dealing with waves of sick or dying victims is a planner's nightmare, as is cleaning up contaminated areas and buildings. The spores of anthrax, one of the most common biological warfare agents, can live for centuries.

City officials recently began monitoring patterns of emergency hospitalization so that they can more swiftly determine if unconventional weapons are used to attack New York. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, officials say, has asked to be personally informed of any suspicious patterns of illness.

Experts agree that skillful terrorists in theory could injure or kill thousands, if not millions, of people, but disagree on the exact dimensions of the threat. Too little is known of that shadowy underworld, they say.

Federal and local officials have become increasingly worried in recent years about the possibility of germ and chemical attacks.

Nationally, the worries stem from American intelligence reports about terrorists planning attacks and such incidents as a religious cult's assaults on Tokyo with nerve gas and germs.

Locally, the danger from terrorists was driven home in 1993, when a terrorist bomb planted by Islamic militants exploded under the World Trade Center, killing six people and injuring 1,000.

Support from Congress

Congress has provided about $100 million to support the training of local officials nationwide to cope with unconventional terrorist attacks. But the Pentagon said only 27 of the 120 cities in that program had received assistance so far. And many have yet to receive equipment.

Although New York has the most elaborate program, Washington, as the nation's capital, has received special attention along with other cities, including Los Angeles, Atlanta and Denver.

In interviews, New York City officials said they were torn between reassuring the public by revealing the defensive preparations and panicking people with doomsday scenarios that, in recent attack studies and simulations, have easily overwhelmed the city's existing defenses.

A sizable part of the $17 million that New York has devoted to emergency preparations has been spent on dealing with unconventional threats from terrorists. Five of the 50 people in the city's Office of Emergency Management work full time on the problem, officials said.

New York's program, which is 2 years old, is considered the nation's most advanced.

"It's seen as the model," said Dr. Brad Roberts, a germ expert at the Institute for Defense Analyses, a private group in Alexandria, Roberts added that it was impossible to know if New York City was overreacting to the potential threat. "There is no concrete answer to how bad this problem is," he said. "But we can see the risks of mass-casualty terrorism are rising. That means it's important to do something."

City officials said Giuliani has been a driving force behind New York's heightened preparations. The officials said the city's planned $15 million crisis-control center was described by these officials as a part of the city's emerging defenses.

The city plans to have the ventilation system of the crisis-management center near the World Trade Center adopt a defensive strategy known as positive pressure, experts say. This precaution keeps a gentle breeze blowing outward whenever a door or window is opened, automatically helping to keep out dangerous germs or chemicals.

'No known immediate threat'

"Obviously, New York is the capital of the world and as such, it's always viewed as the city that faces the greatest threat," said Jerome Hauer, director of the Mayor's Office of Emergency Management. "While there is no known immediate threat, we would be irresponsible if we did not plan for one, even though the likelihood of such an attack is small."

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