Tuesday, February 1, 2005
N.M. Tech Class Teaches Response to Terror Attacks
By Peter Barnes
The Associated Press
SOCORRO Four hundred pounds of fertilizer stuffed in the trunk of an old Pontiac explode outside a suburban mall.
Emergency personnel who rush in to help are gunned down from a nearby car, and when police get there, witnesses can't communicate their eardrums are ruptured from the bomb's shock wave.
About 50 firefighters, police and other first-responders from towns and cities across the country had scenarios like that on their minds all week as part of training on how to react to a terror bombing.
Instructors passed around mock bombs stuffed in suitcases, greeting cards and first-aid kits. Between classes, experts set off homemade explosives to give students a sense of what an attack might be like.
"You can only go so far with books and slides," said Bill Watts, a state constable from Charleston, S.C., as he walked near the debris of a car that had been blown to pieces moments before. All that remained was a wad of steel that had been the engine compartment.
Other lessons showed how common chemicals and parts can be turned into improvised explosives. One instructor noted that the discovery of jugs of urine led to the arrest of potential bombers in New Jersey. Urine can be used to make urea nitrate, the explosive used in the first attack on the World Trade Center.
"There's a lot of explosives in your everyday life," said Van Romero, vice president of research at New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, which hosted the weeklong training put on by the National Domestic Preparedness Consortium.
Created in 1998, the consortium is now under the jurisdiction of the Homeland Security Department and has training facilities in New Mexico, Nevada, Alabama, Texas and Louisiana. A spokesman for Homeland Security said the consortium's programs will train more than 100,000 people this year, using $135 million in federal grants.
Romero pointed out the critical need to train responders at a local level.
"It takes the FBI two days to get to the crime scene. The first-responders are there in six minutes," he said.
During the recent training, muffled shocks from explosives tests rattled the New Mexico mountain range littered with rusting tanks and burned-out plane fuselages. Near the blown-up car, instructors handed out hard hats as students peered inside a half-obliterated concrete building, previously used to test missiles. Inside, mangled steel and concrete hung from the open ceiling, good fodder for a lesson on how to extract survivors from an unstable building.
Many of the situations students prepare for are drawn from information provided by intelligence agencies on potential threats.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, the number of departments that have received the training has gone up exponentially, with even small departments getting involved.
"Until 2001, none of this stuff was offered," said Mark Pederson, a firefighter from Lago Vista, Texas. The town of 4,500 near Austin had an all-volunteer fire department just a decade ago. Now Pederson will be equipped to train other first-responders in the area about explosives, suicide bombers and skills he learned at the other centers involving nuclear and chemical attacks.
"Fortunately, this is still not considered a part of normal operations," said Garry Briese, executive director of the International Association of Fire Chiefs.
But, he added, the rarity of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil shouldn't blind local departments to the risk of one happening near them.