On Point

Homeland Defense From the Frontlines

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 efforts.

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 incident.

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 renewed emphasis.

Q: What's your take on the effectiveness of bio and chemical terror weapons?

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 do?

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.

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