O'Malley launching defense forums for U.S. cities

Mayor hopes Baltimore can be anti-terror model

Terrorism Strikes America

The Response

October 02, 2001|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - Mayor Martin O'Malley, already determined to make Baltimore a "hard target" for terrorists, is now taking part in what he views as a national campaign to protect cities, moderating yesterday the first of what he plans to be a series of Internet tutorials for mayors across the country.

"We're putting together a federal agenda for America's mayors on the whole issue of preparedness and defending our population centers from terrorist attacks, whether it's with trains or planes or bombs or bullets or chemicals or bugs," O'Malley said in an interview after the Internet telecast, sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which said people from 225 mayor's offices participated. "We [mayors] need to be involved. The federal government's depending on us" to help.

O'Malley decided soon after the Sept. 11 terror attacks that he wanted to make the city a national model for security.

In the past two weeks, he and the city have taken some steps that might have been ridiculed only a few weeks ago: hiring a former New York City Police Department official to come up with a terrorism defense plan, drastically beefing up security at city government buildings and around Penn Station, even bringing in barges to protect Baltimore's own World Trade Center.

And O'Malley called in the CEOs of local hospitals for a Sep. 17 meeting to drill in the importance of being prepared for a terrorist strike, including a biological or chemical weapons attack. Yesterday, he urged mayors to do the same in an hourlong videoconference focused on bioterrorism.

During the Internet telecast, O'Malley spoke with Dr. Tara O'Toole, deputy director of the Johns Hopkins University's Center for Civilian Biodefense, about the many dangers posed by a potential biological weapons attack, and of the urgent need for cities to be prepared. Unlike plans for security at buildings and airports, though, the dominant theme yesterday was not how to prevent an attack, but how to react quickly and intelligently to limit deaths.

"There really is a lot that can be done beforehand to mitigate the consequences of a bioterror attack," O'Toole said. "I can't overemphasize enough how important it is that clinicians be alert" to the threat of bioterrorism.

In Baltimore, ambulances and major emergency rooms are now online with what O'Malley calls a "real-time" reporting system that helps the Health Department track any unusual spikes in cold and flu systems that might warn of an attack. The computerized reporting program is designed to thwart one of the more insidious aspects of a biological attack - that no one knows it's happening.

"The best defense that we have on this is to determine as early as possible that there's been some sort of attack," O'Malley told the mayors yesterday.

O'Toole calmly explained the grim challenges the mayors face in preparing for a bioterrorist attack, whether it's a small-pox or plague outbreak, the release of anthrax spores in the air, or one of several other threats.

She said cities will be largely on their own in the early hours after an attack is recognized, before the federal government is able to fly in antibiotics and vaccines from its national stockpile, which is stored in various locations nationwide.

O'Toole noted that it's possible a city won't know for "hours, days, even weeks" that it has been attacked with a biological weapon, making it crucial that cities have a centralized "real-time" medical reporting system like the one Baltimore has installed.

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