by Austin Bay
July 11, 1999. I was deployed with a U.S. Army Reserve and
National Guard Hurricane Mitch relief task force in Puerto Barrios,
Guatemala. As a tropical depression dropped 13 inches of rain, an earthquake
struck. Six point six on the Richter scale.
Army Reserve Colonel Bill Gross, the task force commander, was a
total pro. Within 15 minutes our unit was reorganized and operational. An
hour later, Gross was advising the Guatemalan authorities on recovery
We couldn't have had a better man on the ground. Gross, as a
civilian, is Coordinator of Emergency Preparedness for City of Dallas,
Texas. A Vietnam vet and Texas A&M civil engineer, Gross has extraordinary
experience with hazardous material spills, as well as expertise in "field
response" to biological and chemical contamination.
When it comes to "homeland defense," Gross is both a planner and
a doer. Here are the highlights of a recent Q&A session I had with Gross:
Q: Homeland defense against terror attack. Are we prepared?
A: Locally and regionally we've been working since passage of
the Nunn-Lugar-Domenici (NLD) Act in 1996. Despite 9/11, we're miles ahead
of where we were before 1996, but we still have gaps and holes. NLD was
designed to prepare first responders to deal with terrorist weapons of mass
destruction, specifically chem and bio. The big issue is sharing
intelligence. In Texas I think the FBI's gone out of its way to reach out to
police and other responders. That's the right step. We need to integrate
local state and national (intel) sources. Improve foreign intelligence, of
course, but distribute the intel so law enforcement can act before an
Q: What else needs to improve, beside intel distribution?
A: Hospitals are key in any homeland defense. We've spent
millions to bring local governments up to speed, but have programmed very
little for hospitals. We now have well trained and equipped EMS who will
treat and transport patients in a most efficient manner to hospitals that
have not achieved the same level of preparedness. Let me add public health
professionals are the front line in a bio attack. Public health needs
Q: What's your take on the effectiveness of bio and chemical
A: The threat's real, but it's technologically hard to launch an
effective bio or chem attack and get the kind of casualties you can cause
with conventional explosives. But remember, the object is to terrify, and
these weapons terrify. Someone hears of a bomb going off on the other side
of town, they think, "That's way over there." Hear of a chem release, people
don't isolate themselves. They're afraid everywhere. Again, that's why
resolute leadership is so critical to combating terror.
Q: What do you, as a responder, want local and state leaders to
A: Heck, what national leadership needs to do, too. Clear
guidance and reassurance in times of peril. Governors need to immediately
outline the nature of the threat. Senior officials need to tell the people
that implementing any response plan is harder if citizens lack confidence.
Local leaders need to support and equip their fire and police. Confident and
competent local resources are crucial. Locals need to practice integrating
their capabilities with state and federal assets. Though population centers
are prime terror targets, in this war, even the small towns have a
responsibility to be prepared.
Q: If citizens lack confidence, huh? What about media response
to a terror attack or potential terror attack?
A: I think print media has been very responsible since Sept 11.
I get the impression that some in the broadcast media are more interested in
spreading gloom to garner ratings than quelling people's uneasiness, or
giving solid facts. Once an attack happens, I think we responders can rely
on the media, but it's the time leading up (to an attack). If they don't do
things to dispel uneasiness, then we're fighting those increased fears when
we react. The threat terrorists and particularly weapons of mass destruction
pose is not a quick study. Reporting it requires detailed research. Editors
must field reporters who have done the background study and are not pushing
the sensational element.
Q: A media-terrorized populace makes your job of saving lives
that much harder?
A: Every time someone in the media or around the office water
cooler paints a fearful picture it feeds hysteria. Alarmist methods are
harmful. We are dealing with exactly what FDR said, "the greatest thing we
have to fear, is fear itself." If there is a chemical agent release that
kills 100, to those 100 and their families it's a tragedy. If it is limited
there, then that's one thing. If panic from the incident magnifies it, then
the terrorists have won.