A firefighter's long day

Role: The age of bioterrorism keeps Eric D. Proctor and others on the run trying to allay concerns.

October 19, 2001|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

Howard County Fire and Rescue Services colleagues warned Battalion Chief Eric D. Proctor not to bother packing a lunch. They said he was in for a long day. They were right.

Before noon yesterday, Proctor had talked to a man who panicked after wiping a white substance off his wife's car, fielded a call from a shipping company worried about powder inside a trailer from Israel and another from Ann's House of Nuts in Jessup, where an employee was frightened by a sprinkling of white powder near her desk.

Life has changed radically in the past week for Proctor and thousands of fellow firefighters across the country, who are being asked to manage the creeping fears of suburbanites in this new age of bioterrorism.

"It doesn't matter what it is - coffee creamer, sugar, chalk, anything - we have to treat every call like it's the real deal," Proctor said yesterday, traveling with a reporter on the way to check out his second powdery substance of the day.

Proctor's children, ages 6 and 15, worry about him. "They watch TV, too, and they want me to be safe," he said. But Proctor said he is more concerned about his children.

"What kind of world will they have to live in?" he said.

When a call came in just before 11 a.m. reporting a powdery white substance seen on the back of a tractor-trailer, Proctor sighed, whirled on his heel and strolled to his fire vehicle. "Here we go," he said as he slammed the door.

Miles away, Corporate Express employees had huddled together, waiting for emergency workers to arrive at their office in Savage. When Proctor arrived, the manager rushed up and apologized repeatedly for the call.

"I didn't want to be one of those false alarms you hear so much about," she said.

Proctor told her she had done the right thing. After all, the circumstances were a bit suspicious: the trailer had originated in Israel, stopped in New York and was swept completely clean save for a 4-inch spread of a white powder at the edge.

"Before all of this terrorist stuff, I would have just jumped right on the trailer and unloaded it - not even thought twice about it," said John Bolton, the Corporate Express employee who saw the substance. "Now, you never know. Better to be careful."

Proctor, two firefighters and two county police officers examined the substance, then he radioed for members of the fire department's Special Operations team to package the substance and sterilize the area.

A half-hour later, two firefighters in white hazmat jumpsuits sprayed the powder, soaked it up with a big yellow sponge and sealed it in a heavy-duty Ziplock bag. Proctor consulted with the firefighters, and told the worried workers that their anthrax scare had turned out to be toner from a printer.

"We've got to go the extra mile whenever we have anything suspicious," he said as they repeated apologies for the false alarm.

The powder at Ann's House of Nuts also was found not to be dangerous.

While the Corporate Express employees might have felt foolish, their concern had more substance than many of the calls that firefighters have fielded this week.

One Howard County police officer recalled responding to a call about a white powder discovered in laundry room. Analysis revealed it to be detergent.

Anne Arundel police were asked to investigate a report of a powdery white substance at the bottom of a doughnut box. "Gee, I wonder what that was?" joked firefighters after hearing the tale.

Perhaps the most bizarre 911 call of the week was from a Howard County man reporting a suspicious egg lying on his driveway. He was worried, he told the operator, because the eggshell was unbroken - a telling sign of the level of hysteria behind the current scare.

The firefighters might laugh privately about a few of the daily flood of calls but they say the workload is no joke.

On Wednesday - the day that congressional leaders announced the House of Representatives would be closed until next week to allow Capitol Hill offices to be swept for anthrax - battalion chiefs traveled to 35 homes and businesses in Howard County to investigate suspicious packages and powdery white substances.

Since the United States began bombing Afghanistan last week, county firefighters have responded to about 100 calls related to anthrax scares, said M. Sean Kelly, fire department spokesman.

Some of the incidents were truly frightening.

Diane Hinds of Ellicott City opened an unsealed envelope with no return address that arrived for her daughter Wednesday evening and powder fell out on her as she unfolded the letter. "Congratulations, you have been selected for death by anthrax," the note read.

A fire department squad answered her 911 call and was joined by county police officers, a squad from the Maryland Department of the Environment and the FBI at Hinds' Brampton Parkway home. Emergency personnel - some in full hazardous materials gear -spent about four hours securing the area and collecting evidence.

"It was a little on the scary side," Hinds said yesterday. She and her husband showered using a bleach solution, put on hazardous materials suits and were taken to Sinai Hospital for observation.

They were allowed to return home that night, and the FBI has since told Hinds that the letter did not contain anthrax. But she and her husband will meet with FBI agents to help track down the perpetrator of the hoax.

Proctor said the thought of people taking pleasure by making others believe that they have been exposed to anthrax sickens him.

"We have enough going on right now, and these pranks are only making everything worse," he said.

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