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If you think S.F. is ready for a terrorist attack – even two years-plus after 9/11 – think again

Wednesday, Jan 21 2004
On a gorgeous, warm November morning, a small army of San Francisco cops, sheriff's deputies, FBI agents, and other would-be terrorist fighters gathers behind Pac Bell Park to test its chops. Armed with guns and laptops, the law enforcement officers are about to engage in a full-scale field exercise titled "Terrorist in the Water."

The scenario: A terrorist on the Larkspur-to-San Francisco ferry shoots one of two Coast Guard marshals aboard and holes up in the stern. The surviving security officer spots a suspicious backpack on deck; an emergency is declared. The ferry captain and his panicked passengers head for the dock adjoining the ballpark.

About 200 law enforcement officers, national guardsmen, firefighters, and paramedics -- everybody who is anybody on the Joint Terrorism Task Force for the Bay Area -- meet the ferry. The group sets up a field of fire around the dock. Snipers peer from the giant Coke bottle that dominates the stadium. Waiting nearby are ambulances, prisoner vans, communication vans, command vans, public relations vans, even a food van.

According to several law enforcement officials, the goal of the exercise is to capture the terrorist so he can be interrogated about other terrorists who may still be at large. A dead terrorist, obviously, tells no tales.

The drill is put on hold for 20 minutes when a boatload of schoolchildren unexpectedly shows up. As the last kid scampers away, the ferry captain finally pulls into the dock. SWAT team members edge their way down the gangway, weapons trained on the vessel. When they get close enough, they hurl flash-bang grenades, temporarily disabling the terrorist. But suddenly one of the cops starts shooting. The rest of the SWAT team follows suit, blasting away with blanks until the suspect has been "killed" several times over.

Although the troops have just completely screwed up the exercise, a number of commanders grin and laugh from their vantage point on a ballpark patio. After all, it's a beautiful day, and nobody seems to be taking things too seriously.

San Francisco Police Chief Alex Fagan smiles as gun smoke wafts up from the ferry. He gestures toward the police sharpshooters in the Coke bottle. In real life, he says, the terrorist would never have made it to the dock. "When that ferry was still out in the bay, we would have splattered his fucking brains all over the deck."

"What if the terrorist was wired with explosives?" asks an SF Weekly reporter.

Fagan pauses, a thoughtful expression on his face. "That could be a problem," he concedes. "Maybe we should have tossed him a cell phone."

More than two years after 9/11, San Francisco remains ill prepared for a terrorist attack. In interviews, a wide range of city emergency officials admitted they lack proper plans, equipment, and training to cope with the devastation and chaos of a chemical, radiological, or biological assault. Consider:

The city's written emergency operations plan, which is supposed to guide those on the front lines of a disaster, is an outdated mess -- because, say numerous critics, municipal leaders are not taking anti-terror planning seriously.

Nobody in city government seems to know who is in charge of doing what during and after an attack.

Although police are supposed to seal off contaminated areas at gunpoint, they do not have the equipment or training necessary to contain crowds of panicking people.

There are no plans for an orderly mass evacuation of the city.

The Health Department is not ready to systematically decontaminate and medically treat the hundreds or possibly thousands of victims of a chemical, biological, or radiological weapon.

City government is not prepared to protect and repair vital infrastructures like the port, water and power delivery systems, transportation and communication facilities, and important buildings such as City Hall.

If buildings come crashing down in an attack, the city is not capable of mounting heavy search-and-rescue missions.

The city cannot feed and shelter large numbers of people displaced by an attack for more than two days.

During a catastrophe, our leaders will have trouble talking to each other because the emergency communications system is full of electronic holes.

"There is little we can do to increase security," claims the city's fatalistic former emergency operations chief, Lucien Canton. "A lot of it is common sense, like staying out of underground garages. We try to mitigate, but in the back of our minds it's going to happen. And if you are in the wrong place at the wrong time, you are screwed."

Mayor Gavin Newsom recently replaced Canton with Fagan and sent his remaining department heads a memo saying his administration will give "high priority" to emergency preparedness. The mayor instructed that a fresh emergency operations plan incorporating "the new technologies and new threats of the modern age" be drawn up by June 30. Newsom also reactivated the city's Disaster Council, which is supposed to prepare for and coordinate the local response to terrorist attacks and natural disasters. Under ex-Mayor Willie Brown, the council hadn't even met since October 2001.

Despite his new initiatives, Newsom insists that San Francisco is ready for terrorists. But after interviewing about 20 government emergency officials and reviewing thousands of pages of city planning documents, SF Weekly concluded that the mayor's optimism is far from warranted.

President Bush's National Strategy for Homeland Security calls upon the public to "accept [terrorism] as a permanent condition ... [we must] mobilize our entire society ... [terrorists are] lurking in the shadows ... unbounded by the traditional rules of warfare." But critics say Bush's position is extreme. Its logical outcome is a semipermanent militarization of American society, at a cost of untold billions. As the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based think tank that analyzes U.S. foreign policy, points out, "There is no natural limit to what the United States could spend on emergency preparedness ... [we] could spend the entire gross national product and still be unprepared."

While most reasonable people would probably agree that there are limits to how much a city can do to gird against terrorist assault, many local observers feel San Francisco isn't doing enough.

For instance, the city's current emergency operations blueprint, written in 1996, is badly out of date. Among other things, the plan contains phone numbers for city employees to call for assignments and resources in a disaster. But when the Weekly dialed the numbers, most were disconnected or went unanswered. Canton, appointed by Brown to head the city's Office of Emergency Services in 1996, admits that "hardly anybody" reads the 1,000-page tome, which he distributed to city department heads.

The plan also does not set up a workable emergency leadership structure, lay out an evacuation plan, or provide a strategy for recovering from the devastating effects of a weapon of mass destruction or an earthquake, according to the San Francisco civil grand jury, which sharply criticized Canton's department in a June report titled It's a Catastrophe: The State of Emergency Planning in San Francisco.

"Our focus was on lack of leadership," says Arlene Singer, one of the grand jurors who led the investigation. "Canton [did] not even have the power to tell different departments what to do. The whole emergency system is compartmentalized."

Before he left office, Canton drafted a "terrorism annex" to the emergency plan intended to instruct police officers, firefighters, and other "first responders" what to do in the event of a chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear attack, known in Homeland Security-speak as a "CBRN." The Weekly requested a copy of the annex under the California Public Records Act, but City Attorney Dennis Herrera censored the document so heavily as to render it meaningless.

Singer and her fellow grand jurors, however, read an uncensored version of the terrorism annex. Although she is sworn to secrecy about the people, locations, and particular risks identified in it, Singer says the document did not change her view that the city isn't ready to deal with terrorism.

Under the city charter, the mayor has sweeping powers in an emergency -- including the authority to declare martial law. San Francisco's chief executive can impress citizens into labor brigades to fight fires, demolish contaminated buildings, dig latrines, and bury the dead. He can commandeer property and authorize police to use deadly force.

In the event of a terrorist attack, the Disaster Council, composed of the mayor and his major department heads, would convene around a U-shaped conference table at the city's emergency command center on Turk Street in the Western Addition. There they'd communicate by radio and telephone with those on the scene.

According to several studies of the local response to the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., different city emergency departments must learn to work under a single "incident commander." If the fire chief is made the incident commander because fires are burning or search-and-rescue efforts are needed, police officers and other emergency personnel must take orders from him. And vice versa: If the police chief is placed in charge because the disaster area is also a crime scene or potentially contaminated people are running in all directions, firefighters must obey him.

But, says the grand jury, San Francisco's Police, Fire, and Emergency Services departments have all failed to follow "the Incident Command System and comply with other procedures established by the state Standardized Emergency Management System." That conclusion is reinforced by interviews with key officials, who indicate that some first responders may not be inclined to work under an incident commander from a different department.

"Street cops and firemen will rise to the occasion," says police Sgt. Daniel Linehan, a counterterrorism expert who has been involved in numerous planning sessions. "They will have casualties. But they will only take orders from their own commanders."

The grand jury also faulted former Mayor Brown for paying too little attention to emergency planning, adding that there were too many cooks stirring the preparedness stew. In addition to Canton, a veteran disaster planner, emergency policy was being made by two high-level officials with little or no experience in the field, Controller Edward Harrington and Brown's chief of staff, Steve Kawa (now Newsom's chief of staff).

At the same time, the planning roles of city officials who would deal directly with a terror attack, such as the police and fire chiefs, were minimized and uncoordinated, said the jurors. This confused approach has meant that the city's thousands of first responders -- police officers, firefighters, doctors, nurses, paramedics, engineers, heavy equipment operators, and volunteers -- are not being organized into a force capable of acting quickly and efficiently in a disaster.

San Francisco cops, firefighters, and others who would have to cope with a CBRN event receive a copy of Jane's Chem-Bio Handbook, which cautions them to watch out for panic-stricken victims. Such people, it warns, "may become agitated and fearful and may attempt to either leave the exclusion zone or approach, or even contact, rescue personnel." Penning up CBRN victims within the contaminated "hot zone" is imperative to avoid contaminating others, the book says.

But the San Francisco Police Department is woefully undertrained and -equipped to cope with hordes of panicky CBRN victims, according to a number of officials.

The SFPD currently has only 25 "Level A" protective suits for the 2,223-member force, according to Cmdr. James Dudley. Costing up to $3,000 apiece, such suits have a self-contained breathing apparatus and resist both chemical and germ agents. Hundreds of cops might have to put them on to enforce a hot zone perimeter.

But Dudley, who heads a 100-member anti-terror unit, and other experts say even if there were enough suits, they're difficult to wear. After five minutes inside them, the temperature rises by 20 degrees and the humidity is 100 percent. After about 20 minutes, the suits are so uncomfortable they must be taken off and, because they're contaminated, thrown away. Wearers must then douse themselves with copious amounts of water mixed with cleaning solvents. Nonetheless, Dudley says he wants many more Level A suits, but is budgeted only for an additional two dozen.

Linehan says the cops also don't have enough training in how to control crowds while encased in clumsy protective suits. "We are simply not ready to sustain a response for hours and days. We need training on how to wear ... protective suits. They have respirators that are hard on the heart and lungs, especially under stress."

Dudley has assigned a CBRN-trained officer to each of the city's 10 police stations, hoping that some of their expertise will wear off on the rank and file. He wants to provide CBRN training for all police officers, and has applied for up to $3 million in federal grants to get it started. He also wants to buy a reusable van designed to operate inside a hot zone and to equip every patrol car with the relatively inexpensive Level C protective suits that can resist toxic dust, but not poisonous vapors. In addition, he needs new radio equipment, air testing devices, crowd control gear, and software to access anti-terrorist intelligence databases.

"[Getting ready for] terrorism requires a 10-year commitment," Linehan says. "You can't just strap on a Level A suit and walk out and function. It will be bedlam, total panic if a weapon of mass destruction goes off. People will be trampling each other to get away."

One day in November, SF Weekly asked Lucien Canton for a copy of the city's evacuation plan. "Evacuation is not handled well in the emergency plan," he replied. He began searching his office for the document.

"The SFPD is supposed to know the section on evacuation, if they have one," he murmured. "I do not know how much [trickles] down to the lower levels. It should be here, but I do not have a copy."

It turned out that the Police Department didn't have a copy of the evacuation plan either -- because it didn't exist.

"It will be similar to New Year's Eve when we have 2 million people in the city," explains Police Chief Alex Fagan. "People will panic. Our job is to instill confidence. The problem we have is that evacuation requires training."

Singer says the grand jury determined that although police can handle relatively controllable events like New Year's Eve, they are not prepared to evacuate the terrified population of an entire neighborhood, or the even larger numbers of people who'd flee a fear-inspiring attack like a dirty bomb detonation.

The city is prepared, however, to get help if San Franciscans start "self-evacuating" without government permission. Mayor Newsom could request aid from both the state and federal governments to seal off the city.

The California National Guard has a Hayward-based unit, the 95th Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team, which could be airlifted to Hunters Point within fours hours of a CBRN attack, according to National Guard Maj. Jeff Smiley. The centerpiece of the 22-member team is a lead-lined, $1.5 million van stuffed with just about every kind of communications device known to man.

Inside it, Smiley could order up satellite images of the disaster scene and link to supercomputers at Sandia National Laboratory in Livermore that could model the probable trajectory of a radioactive or chemical plume. Smiley also has a gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer capable of rapidly sniffing out what chemicals had been released in the city from among 150,000 possibilities. He has videoconferencing facilities through which medical and scientific experts from around the country could advise local authorities whether the population should shelter in place behind plastic tarps and duct tape, or evacuate in some orderly fashion.

Those same experts could also suggest that the population be stopped from leaving town -- by military force, if necessary.

Under that scenario, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld would become incident commander via the Northern Command, the Pentagon's new command and control center in Colorado, which has authority over all troops on U.S. soil. To stop the spread of chemical or radioactive contamination or infectious disease, Rumsfeld could order Army tanks and soldiers to close the Golden Gate and Bay bridges, as well as roads leading south from San Francisco.

Dr. John Brown is the medical director of San Francisco's paramedics. A thin, busy, thoughtful man, he'd be in a serious pickle if suddenly faced with the 75,000 emergency patients the federal government says he should be capable of treating. And Brown knows it.

"We can't take care of more than a few hundred CBRN patients for very long, not on our own," he says. "A car bomb might be 10 or 20 casualties. A building collapse could be in the thousands."

Brown says since medical authorities have no way of knowing what germ agent might be used in an attack, they must try to prepare for a variety of possibilities. But, he says, "One of our basic vulnerabilities is lack of an ability to detect a disease rapidly. By the time people start showing up at the emergency room, it is too late."

In the event of a terror attack involving chemical or radioactive agents, the first problem is decontaminating victims as much as possible.

The Fire Department recently practiced decontamination techniques by herding a group of "victims" into an underground garage and turning the sprinkler system on them, says Robert Navarro, who commands the SFFD's special operations division. But what if the victims were panicking and trying to run away from, say, a shopping center where nerve gas had been released? Pamela Katz, an operations manager for the city's Emergency Communications Department, says firefighters would use hoses to force them back inside.

"We learned that if contaminated people come out of a mall, hose them back," says Katz, who recently attended a federal government course in responding to weapons of mass destruction. "We do not want to contaminate the hospitals! But we also do not want the public to know that."

Decontamination is best done, experts say, with portable shower units complete with dressing gowns and towels. But the city has exactly one of these, according to the civil grand jury. So instead, firefighters would have to flush victims from a distance with massive amounts of cold water. Sponges dipped in cleaning solvents and warm water would be made available so victims could self-decontaminate. Victims would then be transported to "casualty collection points" at Fort Mason, Pacific Bell Park, Crissy Field, and McLaren Park for medical treatment.

But, reflecting a view common among first responders, Linehan says there's simply no way to decontaminate and treat large numbers of CBRN victims.

"The emergency planners at the Department of Health know they can't do it," he says. "But they can't say it publicly, because their bosses do not want them to say it."

Brown recently told a meeting of his colleagues that a CBRN attack would overwhelm his medical response system in six to 12 hours. Without massive help from the federal government and from nearby counties, he wouldn't be able to treat more than a few hundred casualties before he ran out of supplies, equipment, and personnel. That could be a real problem if San Franciscans have to be prepared to be on their own for a week, as the Office of Emergency Services advises.

Brown says he has less than $100,000 a year to spend on emergency planning, training, and maintaining the Metropolitan Medical Task Force, an interagency team that will rush to the scene of an attack. The task force needs more ambulances, modular hospital wards, and microbe detectors. It needs dozens of same-frequency radios to hand out to paramedics from Alameda, Marin, San Mateo, and Contra Costa counties who might be able to help. Brown also needs to buy fresh drugs to treat diseases like Ebola, plague, and botulism, and new antidotes for nerve agents such as sarin or VX.

"We need to replace stockpiles of medications that we bought in 1998, because they expire in three to five years," he says.

In the final analysis, though, Brown does not believe that buying a lot of high-tech equipment will end the threat of anti-American terrorism. "We need to work more on terrorist prevention," he says. "We could help [Third World] people improve their standard of living, and not just do a police function."

Over the last year, government officials identified critical city infrastructures that they believe are vulnerable to attack. They decline to make the specific weaknesses public, but the Fire Department's Navarro is willing to talk about them in general terms.

San Francisco's most likely terrorist targets are high-profile corporate buildings like the Bank of America headquarters, factories that use toxic chemicals, fuel storage depots, and biological labs such as those in Mission Bay, says Navarro, whose special unit deals with hazardous material releases and weapons of mass destruction. High-risk targets also include diplomatic compounds, government and military installations, and Pac Bell Park.

It's also clear from interviews and public records that major targets like the port, BART, Muni, government buildings, and telecommunication and utility facilities remain basically unprotected, due mostly to the tremendous cost of "hardening" them against attack.

The civil grand jury reported that San Francisco's water supply is seriously at risk, since terrorists could easily blow up parts of Hetch Hetchy's 165 miles of unprotected reservoirs and pipelines. The city Public Utilities Commission does not have a plan to secure the water delivery system, nor one to provide drinking water to millions of Bay Area customers should Hetch Hetchy fail.

Grand jurors also complained that the IBM mainframe brain of the city's computer system is located in a highly vulnerable downtown site. If it is taken out, many essential services would be paralyzed. Moreover, the city's 90-year-old network of water pipes feeding fire hydrants is decaying, leaky, and unreliable.

Although many San Francisco emergency officials say the grand jury's findings are accurate, then-Mayor Brown dismissed them as "preposterous." And in a lengthy written reply to the grand jury report, former emergency services chief Canton agreed with some findings, disagreed with others, and said he was not going to do anything about the majority of the conclusions since his office did not possess the power to compel city officials to make emergency plans or work with each other on a common goal of preparedness.

Henry Chase, an infrastructure expert for the Homeland Defense Journal, pointed out in an October article that the burden of hardening what the government terms "critical infrastructure" falls on the private companies that own most of it. These firms are not eager to spend millions of dollars setting up germ and radiation detectors, reinforcing walls and floors, installing minicams with face-recognizing biometric software, hiring more security guards, and inspecting the contents of the millions of truck-size shipping containers that regularly cross U.S. borders.

Chase says private companies are asking for government subsidies and tax breaks as a condition of improving their own security. Many of them, he says, are reluctant to share information with government agencies because "Industry [is] worried that the information being shared might be used to launch criminal investigations rather than protect the infrastructure."

Local government agencies are asking the feds for money, too. BART and Muni are in line for $4.5 million in federal grants to build barricades and install surveillance cameras, motion detectors, thermal imaging devices, and chemical/ radiological sensors -- plus buy software to tie the machines together. Commercial ferry and shipping companies at the Port of San Francisco were awarded $1.2 million by the feds this year to install surveillance systems.

When all is said and done, though, it takes a lot of expertise and money to build, transport, and set off CBRN weapons capable of killing thousands of people. On the other hand, conventional explosives can cause plenty of damage. Some police, fire, and emergency response officials say they are more worried about car and truck bombs than weapons of mass destruction.

"The general feeling," says Police Chief Fagan, "is that if terrorists had a nuclear bomb or a dirty bomb, it would have been used by now. If the public knew what was being done to disrupt cells, they would sleep better at night."

Civil grand juror Singer disagrees. "I learned enough to be scared," she says. "An airplane full of bad stuff downtown would be really bad."

Singer says San Francisco is reasonably ready for "normal" disasters such as minor explosions. But she adds that a myth of preparedness has arisen here since the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

Singer and Linehan both point out that the city's response to Loma Prieta was rife with problems, including poor radio communications, insufficient water for firefighting, failure to find enough food and shelter for displaced people, and limited search-and-rescue ability. Dozens of people died horrible, lingering deaths in the rubble of the Cypress Freeway, for instance, because nobody in the Bay Area had the expertise and equipment to dig them out.

Nearly 15 years later, San Francisco remains incapable of launching heavy search-and-rescue missions on collapsed buildings, bridges, or freeway overpasses.

Phil Chin, head of disaster planning for the Department of Public Works, is in charge of getting ready for heavy search-and-rescue operations, demolishing buildings contaminated by a weapon of mass destruction, clearing streets so emergency vehicles can move about, barricading radioactive or contaminated sections of the city, and removing hazardous materials and infectious debris. He is blunt about the city's lack of readiness in these areas.

"We are not currently prepared to operate in [a CBRN] environment," he says. "We need to teach folks to use protective equipment [such as Level A suits]. It is expensive to train people and equip them and recertify them annually. Ten years ago, we had some capability, but it was not deemed cost effective and was cut out in a budget crunch."

Chin hopes to receive federal grants to buy two Unimog trucks, the Swiss army knives of emergency response. The $400,000, four-wheel-drive vehicles can function like a bulldozer, a crane, or a debris scooper. Still, Chin says, the Unimogs "are not as good as any single piece of equipment, like a bulldozer, [cutting] torch, crane, lift beams. We can economize by spending on two of those [vehicles], instead of more equipment."

How would city officials cope with all the contaminated corpses that could result from a CBRN attack? Chin says they hope not to have to bulldoze bodies into pits, as was done with many victims of the recent Iranian earthquake. "We may not approach it that way," he says. "As much as possible, those in charge want to salvage remains in a certain manner. It's a cultural thing."

Since the San Francisco Medical Examiner's Office isn't capable of handling more than a few dozen radioactive or otherwise tainted corpses, the city probably would call on the federal Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team, which dispatches morticians to decontaminate, bag, and bury casualties of weapons of mass destruction.

DMORT workers would bring in their own Level A suits, bleach, refrigerated storage units, embalming materials, and 55-gallon drums for storing dead pets. But a 35-member DMORT team can only bag about eight human corpses an hour, according to the Army's Guidelines for Mass Fatality Management During Terrorist Incidents Involving Chemical Agents. Although the Army is expanding the number of teams, it has determined that the United States is "unprepared to manage catastrophic numbers of fatalities at the local and regional level."

This means that after a particularly horrible disaster, local officials might have to use Unimogs to plow contaminated and rotting bodies into mass graves, perhaps in Golden Gate Park.

Not everybody perishes in a disaster, of course, and displaced survivors must be looked after. City officials expect up to 40,000 people to be left homeless by a major earthquake. But a radioactive plume blowing across a city of about 776,000 could drive many times that number of people out of their homes and apartments.

The grand jury determined that the city is capable of sheltering and feeding only about 1,500 displaced people -- and then only for 48 hours. According to the city's current emergency plan, cots and blankets will arrive through the good graces of the Red Cross and the Salvation Army. Displaced people will be housed in large halls and public schools. And food will be commandeered from restaurants and supermarkets, although supplies will be limited.

In his reply to the grand jury, Canton explained, "In emergency response, feeding is not considered an immediate need. ... [P]eople can survive without food for a considerable period of time."

In the mid-1990s, the city invested $166 million in a state-of-the-art emergency communications center on Turk Street. Officials concede, however, that the facility would have serious problems in an emergency. For example, the central 911 radio system cannot talk directly to Muni drivers, BART police, or airport officials. Nor can it penetrate numerous "dead zones" between hills or the interiors of commercial high-rises and some public buildings, such as the Hall of Justice. It also can't reach underground basements and garages, which in a disaster might contain many injured and trapped people requiring rescue.

Canton says these electronic gaps can be filled by issuing portable radios to all first responders, but admits he had only "a small cache" of them.

Linehan says the emergency communication network is as likely to fail here as it did in New York after the World Trade Center attack. A helicopter full of communications gear might help first responders talk to one another and see the big picture, he says.

But San Francisco has no municipal chopper. "After we had a helicopter crash in January 2000, we sold four of our helicopters for [use as] crop-dusters, and the other two for scrap," says Linehan. "There are no plans to acquire a new one."

Grand jurors were particularly troubled by the lack of a viable backup for the 911 system should its transmission towers on Twin Peaks be destroyed, or if the Turk Street center itself was bombed or contaminated. Canton admits that the existing backup at Northern Police Station is not capable of handling the communications load of a disaster. But he says the problem was scheduled to be studied, and if things get really tough, the city can mobilize ham radio operators and "the Zeitgeist crew" -- bicycle messengers who hang out at the Zeitgeist bar on Valencia Street.

"We can't let high-tech take over," Canton says, smiling.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has budgeted $23 billion for combating domestic terrorism in 2004. About $3.4 billion of that is earmarked for local first responders. This year and next, San Francisco will pull down about $60 million in federal anti-terrorism funds.

City Hall officials are asking the feds for about $30 million this year to fix five of 35 local "vulnerabilities." A heavily censored copy of the city's grant application obtained by SF Weekly bore a lengthy wish list of anti-terror equipment, including:

chemical agent detection paper, $60 a roll

cadaver bags, $100 each

cyanide antidote kits, $325 each

ballistic threat helmets, $4,000 each

radiation detectors, $10,000 each

bomb search suits, $18,000 each

gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer, $20,000 each

portable radios, $30,000 each

robot, $150,000 each

portable decontamination system, $300,000 each

motion detectors, $500,000 each

vehicle identification lasers, $500,000 each

handheld biological agent detector, $750,000 each

diver/swimmer detection systems, $1,000,000 each

"The bulk of [this year's] grant money is for first-responder equipment and training, replacing expired nerve agent drugs, protective equipment," says Canton. "It's a crapshoot when you don't know how much money is coming down the pipeline. We do not want to overcommit. We want to be able to sustain, to look to the [city's] General Fund for long-term funding."

But the sudden onrush of federal money has exposed a rift among emergency officials. Canton, a longtime employee of the Federal Emergency Management Agency before taking over San Francisco's emergency department, feels the new emphasis on homeland security is draining resources from preparations for traditional disasters like earthquakes.

"[The U.S. Homeland Security Department is] disregarding 20 years of working to address all emergencies," he says. "They are inventing a whole new structure, abrogating things we thought were bedrock, by focusing on terrorism and weapons of mass destruction."

A high-ranking City Hall official, who asked not to be named, disagrees vehemently.

"There is a difference between terrorism and earthquake response. If you are [a first responder] in a hot zone, you are fucked. We need suits, heavy equipment, training -- much more than cots and blankets. We need a working command system, a governance structure."

And so far, San Francisco doesn't have those things, as the outspoken police Sgt. Linehan continues to point out, over and over.

"My ass may be exposed here, but I don't care," he says. "It's too important to be swept under the rug."

Arlene Singer says that several city officials were pretty upset after the grand jury report came out. "Some even called me up and swore at me," she remembers with a shrug. She hopes Mayor Newsom will turn things around.

Emergency management planners could begin, she suggests, by staging surprise disaster exercises, unlike the "Terrorist in the Water."

"In Baltimore, they simulated a large terrorist attack and didn't warn anybody," she says. "They had people stumbling into hospital emergency rooms with symptoms!

"We need to do more complex functional exercises here that will test the limits of the system and show our weaknesses so we can improve our vulnerable areas."

About The Author

Peter Byrne


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