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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, September 11, 2002

Prepared for the worst Prepared for the worst (September 11, 2002)

Antiterrorism, disaster measures in the works before Sept. 11

Sept. 11 put a spotlight on terrorism preparedness, which before had received little public attention.

In the Bay Area, however, antiterrorist measures were in the works long before the attacks.

Local agencies laid the groundwork for today's efforts in 1998 with an all-out simulation of a chemical attack that involved police and fire departments from all the cities in Santa Clara County, as well as the county's public health system and various state and federal agencies.

This was the Bay Area's first full-scale exercise on weapons of mass destruction, one of a series authorized through the Department of Defense.

Congress appropriated money for local antiterrorist exercises in 1997, after a wave of attacks in the 1990s, including the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, a sarin gas attack by a religious cult in the Tokyo subway in 1995, and, perhaps most ominously, the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building bombing in Oklahoma City in the same year.

"The real wake-up call was Oklahoma City," Palo Alto Police Chief Pat Dwyer said. "Where before, cities said it can't happen here, Oklahoma City made us all realize it can happen here."

In addition to fire suppression, policing and emergency medical care, the attacks in the 1990s taught public officials nationwide that full-scale disasters require civilian help with tasks like damage assessment, safe building collapse, preventative health measures and long-term psychological help.

Much of this was old news for Bay Area cities, which have a long history of helping each other cope with fires, earthquakes and chemical accidents.

"The difference was that we had to add a new element of intent," said Dr. Frannie Winslow, a terrorism expert with the San Jose Office of Emergency Services. "With accidents, conditions are usually somewhat limited. There's no effort made to aim a chemical plume, for example. (Terrorism) made us think about things in a different way."

In Palo Alto, antiterrorist planning got an indirect boost from an unexpected source: the winter floods of 1998.

Caught off guard by the El Nino flooding, which wrought havoc for hundreds of Palo Alto families, the city vowed to improve its disaster preparedness and response. In 1999 it created its Office of Emergency Services, as well as its first civilian disaster squads, known as Palo Alto Neighborhood Disaster Activities, or PANDAs. These groups -- which teach residents how to cope with such problems as hazardous materials releases, damage assessment, first aid, fire suppression, and search and rescue -- look quite similar to the civilian emergency response teams called for this year by President George W. Bush.

"Terrorism is no different from other disasters. It's just lasting a lot longer," said Mick McDonald, the Palo Alto fire battalion chief in charge of emergency services. "If you prepare for one, you'll prepare for them all."

Barbara Cimino, the city's disaster coordinator, said people should prepare for a terrorist attack in the same way they do for earthquakes, keeping a three-day supply of food, water and emergency supplies around the house.

And as they do with other disaster preparedness efforts, McDonald and Cimino have to fight public apathy.

McDonald points to a joint effort he has undertaken with Public Works to get residents thinking about winter storms.

"People don't want to listen when it's 90 degrees out," he said.

-- Pam Sturner


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