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

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Seattle fire, police departments reprioritized after Sept. 11

Seattle Times staff reporter

The Seattle police and fire departments will be on alert today, but they won't have all the tools they had hoped for should disaster strike.

After last year's September 11 tragedy, the Fire Department drafted a strategic plan for improving its response to terrorism and disaster. Today, most of the recommendations in the plan — including those considered most important by firefighters — remain far from reality.

Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske and Fire Chief Gary Morris readily admitted, in a joint interview yesterday, that there was still work to do.

"We're making progress," said Morris. "The problem is, we're like a dad-gum turtle going across the road. It takes a while to get there."

Not to mention money. Mayor Greg Nickels recently proposed a $10 million reduction in anticipated spending by the two departments for 2003.

That's not to say, however, that Seattle isn't better prepared than it was a year ago.

"People should feel more comfortable," Kerlikowske said. "We've devoted far more attention and resources (to terrorism and disaster). Even though there are not a lot of new resources, we've reprioritized."

With good reason, it seems. Photos of the Space Needle were found among al-Qaida documents seized in an Afghanistan cave earlier this year, and Kerlikowske said Seattle keeps popping up in "intelligence chatter" along with New York and Washington, D.C.

For the anniversary of September 11, both chiefs said they will have more staff on duty, particularly from special units, such as the bomb squad, and their departments will be in a state of "heightened awareness."

The chiefs cited a list of tangible improvements their departments had made in the last year. Few involved gee-whiz technology. Instead, the improvements tend to focus on better planning, especially by top-level commanders in the two departments.

At the top of their list was Nickels' push to create a new Emergency Preparedness Bureau within the Police Department. A big part of the bureau's work is identifying areas of Seattle vulnerable to terrorism, Kerlikowske said.

He declined to offer any details about vulnerable areas.

Next, the chiefs said their departments are collaborating more than they had. "Gary Morris made sure that police and fire staff came together. Now we meet and break bread on a host of issues," Kerlikowske said.

The two departments are also participating in larger collaborations with county, state, federal and international emergency-response teams.

In addition, the two departments have increased in-house training for terrorism and disasters, with a special emphasis on new threats such as bioterrorism and "dirty" bombs.

Yesterday, for instance, Kerlikowske said a four-hour police-training session was devoted entirely to weapons of mass destruction — something that would not have happened a year ago.

"Not everyone needs to be technical expert," Morris added, "but they need to be able to support the experts. It's not unlike the military where 25 percent of the troops might be on the beach while the other 75 percent are supporting them."

But the problem, according to the Seattle firefighters union, is that the number of supporting troops is declining at a time when it needs to be increasing.

The union will hold a rally tomorrow morning at Occidental Park in Pioneer Square to protest $3.3 million in cuts to the Fire Department budget proposed by Nickels.

"Are we any better off today than where we were last year? The answer is probably 'minimally,' " said union president Charles Hawkins.

He points to the Fire Department's strategic plan for terrorism and disaster and notes that little or no progress has been made on a number of recommendations.

For example, seven fire engines remain understaffed, he said, and the total number of paramedics on duty (15) appear to be inadequate for a disaster.

An officer-development program is also lacking, he notes, even though the strategic plan — which was prepared by administrators, not firefighters — stressed that the need for this "cannot be over-emphasized."

Other recommendations yet to materialize include a new emergency-operations center, a back-up dispatch center and a fire-alarm center.

Ground will be broken soon on a new training academy — also recommended in the strategic plan — but it will not be operating until late 2005.

It's possible more recommendations will be coming from the City Council. The council recently inked a $150,000 contract with a consulting firm from Arlington, Va., to review the city's emergency preparedness.

City Councilman Jim Compton, chair of the public-safety committee, said the group would help them obtain federal grants for emergency preparedness and would have preliminary work done in late October in time to be used in drawing up the city budget.

Compton said there were gaps in the city's readiness but that specifics were too sensitive for him to discuss.

"I don't think we should give a list of vulnerabilities to potential terrorists."

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or byoung@seattletimes.com

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