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Wednesday, September 11, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Are we safer? Experts cite strengths, weaknesses in homeland defense efforts

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States has pumped billions of dollars into homeland defense, enlisting scientists and technicians, spawning agencies and task forces, spewing reams of reports.

So far, these efforts have played to mixed reviews. While the government mobilized rapidly against a staggering array of potential threats, Americans are not much safer one year after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, several experts conclude.

A study released Monday by the Federation of American Scientists offers a dismal reading on the nation's ability to respond effectively to a nuclear, biological or chemical attack.

The federation surveyed police officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians and hospital workers. Most indicated they felt unprepared to handle an attack with a weapon of mass destruction.

The report recommended development of a coordinated federal-state-local training plan. Such training should be integrated into medical schools, nursing schools and other institutions that provide initial instruction, the study said, and response training should be offered as continuing education and refresher courses.

Others warn that security also remains worrisome for nuclear and chemical plants, along with rail shipments of toxic chemicals.

Guards have been hired, fences raised, walls thickened. Computer firewalls have been erected and security monitoring increased. But for every new safeguard put in place, another concern arises.

Experts in almost all fields say we're safer from an attack on the nation's critical infrastructure — broadly defined by the government as telecommunications, energy, financial services, manufacturing, transportation, health care, emergency services and water systems — than we were a year ago. How much safer is difficult for them to say.

"There's been a very significant increase in awareness," said Phillip Lacombe, a vice president of Veridian, a suburban Virginia-based security company and former director of the president's commission on critical infrastructure from 1996 to 1998. "There's a lot more assessment work under way than there ever was before."

But how to go about securing 500 major bridges or the dozens of hydroelectric dams that supply both water and power to much of the western United States upstream of major metropolitan areas poses difficult challenges. The cost of stationing guards over every stretch of such far-flung facilities is prohibitive and standardizing security measures among all interested parties — state, local and federal governments and the private sector — has not been contemplated, experts acknowledge.

For its part, the public has been left to ponder a stream of vague warnings and color-coded risk alerts.

"If September 11 demonstrated anything, it's that it is illusory that we can wrap ourselves in a security blanket," said Bruce Hoffman, a counterterrorism expert at the nonprofit Rand Corp., and a consultant to the federal government.

Yet experts note that the danger to any one person must be kept in perspective — auto accidents killed 41,821 people in 2000 while last year's anthrax attacks killed five.

And there are ways to cut the odds.

While members of Congress have gas masks, citizens still await definitive instructions on what to do if attacked with biological, chemical or nuclear weapons.

"We have to figure out how to make the average citizen better prepared," said Thomas Glass, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University.

For starters, he said, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should begin telling people how to avoid spreading infectious diseases in a crisis.

Glass thinks smallpox shots and gas masks are bad ideas. Too much can go wrong. But teaching people to do simple things, such as putting duct tape around windows, might save more lives than mass evacuations in a bioterror attack.

The CDC now runs an interactive computer network linking it with some 2,000 local health agencies and medical associations to help spot and respond to outbreaks of disease quickly.

As a result of last fall's anthrax attack, mail addressed to federal offices is irradiated. For the rest of us, the Postal Service is testing equipment capable of detecting and neutralizing a wide range of biochemical toxins. It could be operating systemwide in just over a year if all goes well.

Meanwhile, U.S. Customs officers are headed overseas to check cargo containers as they're loaded in Singapore; local police and FBI are sharing more information about threats and suspects; and hospitals and public-health departments are tracking diseases for potential bioterror attacks.

A law that took effect in May requires law-enforcement and intelligence officials to share more information with the State Department, which issues visas, as well as the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Millions of FBI records have been added to the State Department lookout system, which screens all foreigners before they receive visas from U.S. consulates.

And for all the hand-wanding and shoe-removing at airport-security checkpoints, most aviation-security experts say reinforced cockpit doors and a more vigilant flying public are the two changes that have made the skies safer than they were a year ago.

Congress created the Transportation Security Administration in November, ending a decades-old system that allowed airlines, through contracts with private security companies, to operate and pay for airport security.

Tens of thousands of new federal security screeners are scheduled to arrive at airports nationwide. But aircraft remain vulnerable to terrorists because many security measures — such as screening all luggage for explosives, handling and inspecting airport cargo for bombs, reinforcing the entire cockpit door, and keeping airport perimeters and access under control — have yet to be implemented.

From police on the streets to those who train emergency responders, there's greater attention to details.

"It's something my officers think about every day," said Detective Gary McLhinney in Baltimore. "That car stop with the tag light being out. Take it a step farther and see who's in that car, make sure the license checks out.

"They understand that if something's going to be averted, it's going to be because a street cop is going to stumble on it."

The awareness of a threat isn't just on the front lines. A poll by ICR/International Communications Research of Media, Pa., found 63 percent of people felt another terrorist attack was very or somewhat likely.

Betty Schuster, a retired high-school history teacher in Waterford, Mich., doesn't think all the police and FBI agents and Customs guards can ultimately stop a terrorist from killing more Americans. She's angry and a bit scared, but she doesn't lose sleep or stop flying. She's found a balance.

"I really do feel safe," she said.

She stays alert when she travels, while out shopping, in her neighborhood. But she worries — just like the experts working on this every day — about the nation letting its guard down.

Jerome Hauer, who oversaw emergency management in New York and now heads the Public Health Preparedness Office for the federal Health and Human Services Department, said: "We forget that groups like al-Qaida are very patient. The sad thing is, I think we will have another event. And that will stem the tide of complacency."

Compiled from The Associated Press, The Washington Post, Newhouse News Service and Newsday.

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