Small towns seek to cope with terror threat

Sophisticated gear, training classes, volunteers all help

November 18, 2001|By Winnie Hu | Winnie Hu,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

SUFFERN, N.Y. - In a newly required class on anthrax, Detective Craig H. Long of the Suffern police held up a full-face respirator, a white jumpsuit and latex gloves to prepare his officers in this rural village in Rockland County for the worst case.

"This is the type of thing we never thought we'd have to deal with," he told the three officers sitting in his class on a recent morning. "But the fact is, we now have domestic terrorism here."

Few, if any, communities are totally prepared for the new domestic landscape of terrorism and anthrax alerts. But while New York and other major cities are racing to get large departments and hazardous-materials teams up to speed, smaller communities and suburbs are often relying on far fewer officers and highly trained volunteers who divide their time between emergency calls and paying jobs.

Of course, the chances of an anthrax attack are higher in Manhattan than in Suffern. And small towns and suburbs will never have the resources of larger ones. But as communities try to gear up for terrorism threats, some officials and residents are becoming painfully aware of how far they have to go.

"I think we're totally underclubbed in Westchester," said Fire Chief Raymond Kiernan of New Rochelle, who advocates forming more hazardous-materials teams in the county. "We're vulnerable because we don't have the resources to respond to multiple incidents in the county, or one major incident, or any incident quickly."

Though anti-terrorism training is hardly new, communities in Westchester and Rockland counties have escalated their efforts as fears of anthrax have spread to the suburbs. Local police and fire departments have focused on bioterrorism, redirected limited resources and adopted tighter security measures in places that once seemed far removed from the tumult of New York City.

Increasingly, these local departments have also come to depend upon the counties' hazardous-materials technicians to identify and handle suspected biological and chemical agents like anthrax. These technicians, who are unpaid volunteers, include chemists, industrial safety officers, health workers and others whose skills have suddenly become just as vital as police work in combating bioterrorism.

The anthrax scare

In recent weeks, the anthrax scares have heightened public scrutiny of the two-tiered emergency response system in many suburban counties. First, local police and fire departments investigate reports about suspicious white powders. Then, after ruling out hoaxes and other possibilities, they evacuate the buildings and call the counties' hazardous-materials teams to test for anthrax.

In Greenburgh in Westchester County, for instance, the town hall was closed on Oct. 16 after employees discovered white powder with crystalline flecks in two stalls in a men's room. Police officers cordoned off the bathroom and sent employees home early so that the building could be tested by hazardous-materials technicians. It reopened the next day after they ruled out anthrax.

Since then, town officials have closed the building's side and back doors and budgeted an extra $30,000 a year for a private security guard at the main entrance to keep track of visitors. Paul J. Feiner, the town supervisor, has instructed town workers to set aside suspicious packages and letters without return addresses. "Everybody's on a learning curve," he said. "People are getting more prepared every day."

Chief John A. Kapica of the Greenburgh police said all 112 of his officers have been educated about anthrax and equipped with masks, goggles, latex gloves and biohazard suits. They have checked out more than 80 reports of suspicious mail, including a package to a business that contained a plastic sandbox, rocks, a rake and a bag of white sand that had broken open. It turned out to be a Microsoft promotion for its new Windows XP operating system.

Similarly, Suffern's 30 police officers have responded to more than two dozen anthrax-related calls. They have attended a one-hour training class on anthrax and other biological weapons and familiarized themselves with the full-face respirators that the department is now considering supplying to every officer, at a total cost of more than $6,000. (Currently, they have surgical masks.)

120 calls

In the most threatening cases, police and fire departments have turned to the counties' hazardous-materials teams for help. Rockland's 83 technicians have responded to 120 anthrax-related calls in the past month, compared with an average of five emergency calls a month before the terrorist attacks. Westchester's 30 technicians have responded to 50 calls and fielded more than 200 inquiries from local police departments over the phone.

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