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Surprise! 

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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Page 6 of 6

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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