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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

Page 3 of 6

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."

About The Author

Peter Byrne


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