City plans to expand training for police

Officers will learn how to better deal with terrorist threats

October 17, 2001|By Del Quentin Wilber | By Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Facing unfamiliar territory in responding to potential terrorist attacks, Baltimore police commanders are gearing up to give officers more training on how to deal with a crisis, which could include biological or chemical weapons.

City police plan to offer in-depth training in the near future to officers, but are also going to prepare stopgap measures, which include creating videos and cards with simple checklists. Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris said the training is badly needed because officers have been taught to fight crime - not deal with terrorist threats.

"This has made a complicated job more complex," said Norris. "They don't have to be hazardous-materials experts. But they are the first responders."

Across the region, the response by departments varies, with some saying they have completed enough training and others unsure about what to do next.

In Howard County, officers will undergo four hours of training about weapons of mass destruction, a class that was planned before the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11.

Anne Arundel County commanders are compiling information for officers; Annapolis police are developing special training.

Baltimore County officials said no new training is needed because officers have little contact with hazardous materials and leave that to the Fire Department. Even so, all precincts have been issued containers that can be used to seal a suspicious package.

Fire officials across the region said they are prepared to respond to a chemical or biological attack and have specialized hazardous materials units. But city union officials disputed the preparedness of average firefighters, saying they need more training to protect themselves.

"Guys just need to know what they are supposed to look for," said Rick Schluderberg, president of the firefighters union. "We are sorely lacking in preparedness for this."

Capt. Michael Robinson, spokesman for the Baltimore County Fire Department, said that courses dealing with chemical, biological and nuclear attacks have been added to the standard curriculum for training new firefighters and to officer-level courses.

The department had held regular terrorism workshops and refresher courses for all professional firefighters before Sept. 11 - a response to the 1993 bombing at the World Trade Center.

Norris has ordered extensive training throughout the city department. He wants officers to watch videos during roll calls about what to do when they find a letter coated in powder, and he wants them to know who to call and when to call.

After that, he wants to keep up the training. "People have to keep perpetually trained," he said.

Police and city officials have noted a major increase in calls about suspicious packages. On Sunday, they received 14. On Monday, they received 69. Yesterday, dozens came in, but police didn't have an exact tally.

Norris said officials recently completed the first stage of their emergency preparedness plans by compiling a list of the most critical buildings and facilities. Now, Norris said, planners need to determine what officers need to respond to those facilities and what they need to do when they get there.

"The next step is what happens at the street level," Norris said.

Though police have yet to come up with an exact training regimen, they hope to bridge the gaps by creating notebooks for officers that have built-in checklists for different situations.

Maj. Donald Healy, who heads the department's tactical units, has created a note-card checklist for hostage and sniper situations.

He also had just finished a similar one for bomb threats when hijackers crashed planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11.

Two days later, the department printed 10,000 of the bomb threat cards - as the city endured a major surge in bomb threats. Now, Healy is working with city health officials to create a note-card checklist for chemical and biological situations.

"We have to keep it simple," Healy said. "This is something they can have in their hands."

Lt. Col. Stanford Franklin, who heads the training and education division of the department, said police eventually would go through drills to help them deal with mass evacuations and how to approach the site of a chemical or biological attack.

"We want to give them a basic understanding of what to do," Franklin said. "We want them to be able to recognize a chemical or biological incident and initiate containment and evacuations."

Officers will need to quickly think about the proper people to call and to evacuate, and how to approach the scene.

"They'll need to know which way the wind is blowing," Franklin said. "We want to give them enough so they don't run into a situation and become incapacitated."

About 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Lt. John Dobson and an officer responded to the 4300 block of Rogers Ave. at Wabash Avenue after someone reported a suspicious white substance on a mailbox. Dobson immediately roped off the area and called the Fire Department.

"We wanted to keep people away from it," Dobson said. "I've never had training in anthrax. I don't know what it looks like. I treated it like a hazardous-materials situation."

The Fire Department quickly determined that the white powder was from a fire extinguisher.

Even as the department handles dozens of similar calls, Dobson said he forced himself to believe it could be the real thing and has told his officers the same thing. "I told them this could be the one that pops up."

As the training continues, some police say their jobs have changed more in the last month than during the last two decades.

"We've gone from being trained on how to hunt down and catch crack dealers to responding to people's houses because their mail contains white powder," said Officer Gary McLhinney, president of the Baltimore police union.

Sun staff writers Laura Barnhardt, Tim Craig and Julie Bykowicz contributed to this article.

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