Officials pressing initiative for civil defense

`God only knows what these wackos will do next,' instructor says

April 20, 2003|By Dan Mihalopoulos | Dan Mihalopoulos,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

PARAMUS, N.J. -- Hoping to avoid feeling helpless if terrorists strike again, 25 suburbanites gather each week in this town about 10 miles from Manhattan to ponder tough questions.

What is the best way to drag your neighbors from a collapsed building in the aftermath of a terrorist attack?

And what should you do if terrorists release poison gas at the local mall?

"War has just started, and God only knows what these wackos will do next," instructor Maria Kosciolek warned students at a recent civil defense class here.

Grim classroom discussions like this are taking place in almost 400 communities across the country, as the federal government pushes the most ambitious civil defense initiative since the early days of the Cold War five decades ago.

The Citizen Corps program, introduced by President Bush after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, promises to train a legion of volunteers who can fend for themselves and their neighbors until authorities come to their aid.

Citizen Corps courses include classes in fighting fires, first aid, search and rescue operations, crowd control and setting up shelters.

Although federal funding for Citizen Corps is a fraction of what the Bush administration requested, Homeland Security Department officials project 600,000 Americans will learn how to respond to terrorist attacks through the program.

They hope public education will help maintain calm in the face of terrorism.

Polls indicate many Americans expect more attacks, but civil defense experts say most remain unaware of how they can prepare.

"People want to do something about terrorism, and this can give them an outlet," said Randall Larsen, director of the ANSER Institute for Homeland Security, a nonprofit group in Northern Virginia.

Bush unveiled the Citizen Corps concept in January last year, modeling it after the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps and Senior Corps.

He called on communities across the country to form Citizen Corps Councils that will coordinate emergency response and recruit volunteers to support security efforts.

Funding from Congress has fallen far short of the $230 million a year Bush requested for Citizen Corps. Lawmakers allocated $25 million in 2002 and $20 million this year for state and local councils.

In an era of severe budget constraints, the new program lost out to higher priorities, said John Scofield, spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee.

"It was competing for funding with programs like NASA and medical care for veterans," he said.

389 councils

Despite scant federal support, 389 Citizen Corps Councils formed in 41 states and three U.S. territories.

Interest in Citizen Corps has increased greatly since the war with Iraq began, organizers said.

In Hoboken, which lost 53 residents in the destruction of the World Trade Center, its Citizen Corps Council met for the first time in early April. "Let's avoid what happened on September 11, when people came and said, `What can I do?' and we said, `What can you do?'" said Meredith Moss, deputy director of emergency management for Hoboken.

Critics say there is only so much Americans can do.

True security comes from behind-the-scenes efforts to prevent terrorist attacks, said Andrew Grossman, an expert in civil defense at Albion College in Michigan. He dismissed Citizen Corps as "psychological civil defense."

"This is more an attempt to build morale than real public policy," Grossman said. "The reality is that in a chemical or nuclear attack, there is not a hell of a lot you can do. That's not the message the government wants to send you."

And that's not what Citizens Corps volunteers want to hear.

Richard Breining, a stockbroker, attends the free civil defense classes in Paramus with his 16-year-old daughter. His experience on Sept. 11, he said, was the biggest factor in his decision to sign up.

"I felt powerless on 9/11," recalled Breining, whose hometown, Ridgewood, N.J., lost 12 residents in the World Trade Center attacks. "I thought, `Boy, I'm so vulnerable.' I want to be in a position of knowledge rather than being a victim."

Upon graduating from the course, Breining would become the go-to guy in his neighborhood in times of crisis. He plans to delegate three neighbors as his deputies: one to handle triage operations, one to organize food, water and other logistics, and one to communicate with neighbors.

When the nine-week course is complete, each participant will receive a vest, a hard hat, work gloves and goggles to store in his or her car or home.

"9/11 made us look at what we as parents can do beyond PTA meetings and going to soccer games," said Joyce Pelusa, a mother of three from Fair Lawn who is taking the Paramus course.

The citizen volunteers won't be expected to rush headlong toward disaster scenes.

Learning a lesson

Kosciolek, the civil defense instructor, ended a recent class with a video of a hypothetical news report describing a sarin gas attack at the food court of a local mall. The imaginary attack kills 10, including two emergency workers.

She said the lesson is for volunteers to keep a safe distance from danger until they size up what they are facing.

"If you rush to the scene and you go down like those emergency workers, you are part of the problem, not part of the solution," said Kosciolek, an emergency medical technician in Paramus, home to three large shopping malls.

Kosciolek praised her students for wanting to do something about their anxieties. With their training, she said, they may save lives and calm the fears of panicked neighbors.

"In a chaotic situation, everybody wants somebody to say, `It's OK, I'm in charge, I'm going to help you,'" she said.

But after the three-hour class was over and her students filed out of the room, Kosciolek conceded that it is unclear whether they would be able to do much more than offer reassurances in a real disaster.

"Even we don't know what we will be able to do if and when it happens again," she said.

Dan Mihalopoulos is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

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