A Plague on All Your Houses

Denver readies itself for a bio-bomb but is the federal program behind this exercise a dud?

The Center studied 520 global incidents over the past hundred years involving chemical and biological weapons and determined that 123 people had died in such assaults. The sole death in this country that fit the profile occurred in 1973, when members of the Symbionese Liberation Army used cyanide-tipped bullets to kill a California school superintendent.


The TOPOFF exercise won't involve anything as exotic as Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army.

One reason the prospect of biological warfare so worries federal officials is that an attack can be carried out surreptitiously. A terrorist could release an aerosolized virus in the heart of Denver and no one would know about it for days -- until it was much too late. If a terrorist sets off a bomb, emergency crews are immediately dispatched. By contrast, says state epidemiologist Hoffman, the response to a bioterrorist event begins when a doctor phones his local health department, bringing to its attention an odd affliction or a cluster of victims reporting the same type of symptoms.

"It starts as a few drops," Hoffman explains, "then becomes more and more of a downpour." The state laboratory tests specimens or sends them on to another lab. Only after the disease is identified can health officials finally begin dealing with the outbreak. Once biowarfare is confirmed, the national plan is to have vaccines on the ground within twelve hours.

A real incident would call for a long-term commitment of personnel and resources; the TOPOFF exercise will consist of a three-pronged attack over ten days. "A real attack would last much longer than that," Hoffman points out.

Still, in order to deal effectively with biowarfare, local, state and federal health authorities must agree in advance on a scenario for dealing with a disaster. "Awareness and an early-warning network" are integral to being prepared, says Denver Health's Stephen Cantrill. "I know there are federal resources I can call on that might be able to assist us. There are caches of antibiotics that might be available, CDC personnel that we can use, DMAT teams [Disaster Medical Assistance Teams], groups of health-care workers that can be activated and sent to a specific locale." The state health department, for instance, might have to stage mock prophylactic clinics in which to vaccinate large numbers of people. (Hoffman notes that the department was forced to set up real vaccination clinics twice over the past few years to deal with outbreaks of meningitis in local schools.)

"Primarily, we will be doing a command-post type exercise," says Dave Sullivan, deputy director of the Denver Office of Emergency Management. "We'll be looking at the whole system, from local and state all the way to the federal level."

In many ways, though, the city may be better prepared than other parts of the country. "The Denver metro area and the state of Colorado have been out front on a lot of this terrorism and anti-terrorism," says Tommy Grier, director of the Colorado Office of Emergency Management. "The Department of Defense came in here in '95 -- their concern was primarily chemical -- saying we need to look at what the capabilities really are. We've had intensive haz-mat training. We've got chlorine and phosgene rolling through Denver every day -- that's some nasty stuff -- and we have to know how to deal with it in the metro area."

Denver emergency staffers, he says, received special training to deal with such major events as the papal visit in 1993, the Summit of the Eight in 1998, the Oklahoma City bombing trial that same year and the Major League All-Star Game. "Because of the Summit, we were the first city to receive the Nunn-Lugar training," Sullivan points out, adding that the Nunn-Luger-Domenici Domestic Preparedness Training was specifically designed to deal with weapons of mass destruction. "Actually, we've been through it twice," Sullivan says. "The fire, police and paramedic academies have all put pieces of that training in their schools."

In addition, the Denver area is home to a RAID (Rapid Assessment and Initial Detection) team, one of only ten in the country. (The federal government is considering the possibility of placing one such team in every state.) Chris Petty is the deputy commander for the 22-member Colorado team, whose territory includes North and South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Utah and Colorado. Its sole job is to assist civilian first responders -- police, firefighters, paramedics -- in dealing with the identification of weapons of mass destruction, which include nuclear, biological and/or chemical agents or contaminants, and their effects.

"We are trained to deal with things that are intentionally designed to kill people," says Petty. "Anthrax, nerve agents, chemical agents, those types of things."

The RAID crew is deployed after paramedics and firefighters "roll to the scene and begin to realize that this is not a normal event, either through symptoms, visible evidence or deaths," Petty adds. "They're going to start requesting additional assistance. They may contact the state office of emergency management, and once it gets to that level, they will come to the Adjutant General of the National Guard, and that request comes straight to us, and we hit the road. We're on a short deployment at all times, on alert status, and it keeps us ready to go."

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