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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
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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For instance, the city's current emergency operations blueprint, written in 1996, is badly out of date.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.

About The Author

Peter Byrne

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