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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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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.

About The Author

Peter Byrne

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