by Austin Bay
July 11, 1999. I was deployed with a U.S. Army Reserve andNational Guard Hurricane Mitch relief task force in Puerto Barrios,Guatemala. As a tropical depression dropped 13 inches of rain, an earthquakestruck. Six point six on the Richter scale.
Army Reserve Colonel Bill Gross, the task force commander, was atotal pro. Within 15 minutes our unit was reorganized and operational. Anhour later, Gross was advising the Guatemalan authorities on recoveryefforts.
We couldn't have had a better man on the ground. Gross, as acivilian, is Coordinator of Emergency Preparedness for City of Dallas,Texas. A Vietnam vet and Texas A&M civil engineer, Gross has extraordinaryexperience with hazardous material spills, as well as expertise in "fieldresponse" to biological and chemical contamination.
When it comes to "homeland defense," Gross is both a planner anda 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 ofthe Nunn-Lugar-Domenici (NLD) Act in 1996. Despite 9/11, we're miles aheadof where we were before 1996, but we still have gaps and holes. NLD wasdesigned to prepare first responders to deal with terrorist weapons of massdestruction, specifically chem and bio. The big issue is sharingintelligence. In Texas I think the FBI's gone out of its way to reach out topolice and other responders. That's the right step. We need to integratelocal state and national (intel) sources. Improve foreign intelligence, ofcourse, but distribute the intel so law enforcement can act before anincident.
Q: What else needs to improve, beside intel distribution?
A: Hospitals are key in any homeland defense. We've spentmillions to bring local governments up to speed, but have programmed verylittle for hospitals. We now have well trained and equipped EMS who willtreat and transport patients in a most efficient manner to hospitals thathave not achieved the same level of preparedness. Let me add public healthprofessionals are the front line in a bio attack. Public health needsrenewed emphasis.
Q: What's your take on the effectiveness of bio and chemicalterror weapons?
A: The threat's real, but it's technologically hard to launch aneffective bio or chem attack and get the kind of casualties you can causewith conventional explosives. But remember, the object is to terrify, andthese weapons terrify. Someone hears of a bomb going off on the other sideof town, they think, "That's way over there." Hear of a chem release, peopledon't isolate themselves. They're afraid everywhere. Again, that's whyresolute leadership is so critical to combating terror.
Q: What do you, as a responder, want local and state leaders todo?
A: Heck, what national leadership needs to do, too. Clearguidance and reassurance in times of peril. Governors need to immediatelyoutline the nature of the threat. Senior officials need to tell the peoplethat implementing any response plan is harder if citizens lack confidence.Local leaders need to support and equip their fire and police. Confident andcompetent local resources are crucial. Locals need to practice integratingtheir capabilities with state and federal assets. Though population centersare prime terror targets, in this war, even the small towns have aresponsibility to be prepared.
Q: If citizens lack confidence, huh? What about media responseto 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 inspreading gloom to garner ratings than quelling people's uneasiness, orgiving solid facts. Once an attack happens, I think we responders can relyon the media, but it's the time leading up (to an attack). If they don't dothings to dispel uneasiness, then we're fighting those increased fears whenwe react. The threat terrorists and particularly weapons of mass destructionpose is not a quick study. Reporting it requires detailed research. Editorsmust field reporters who have done the background study and are not pushingthe sensational element.
Q: A media-terrorized populace makes your job of saving livesthat much harder?
A: Every time someone in the media or around the office watercooler paints a fearful picture it feeds hysteria. Alarmist methods areharmful. We are dealing with exactly what FDR said, "the greatest thing wehave to fear, is fear itself." If there is a chemical agent release thatkills 100, to those 100 and their families it's a tragedy. If it is limitedthere, then that's one thing. If panic from the incident magnifies it, thenthe terrorists have won.