Mock Terror

Be glad it's only a drill.

The primary worry of most of the mock victims at this week's bioterror drill will likely be boredom as they stand in line, awaiting their chance to play their brief role as potentially infected victims.

Let's hope that's the worst it ever gets.

With new threats from Osama bin Laden himself and the U.S. on the brink of war with Iraq, officials are warning that the Al Qaeda terrorist network is planning a "spectacular" strike that could involve nuclear, biological or chemical weapons aimed at symbolic targets with an aim toward mass casualties.

The heightened concerns come as teams from across the country have gathered in Tucson for this week's bioterrorism conference. So-called "first responders"--the local firefighters, police officers, medical personnel and others who will be on scene long before federal authorities arrive--now recognize the importance of being prepared before an incident occurs.

"Believe it or not, the people I talk to say we're ahead of a lot of the rest of the country in this area and we're giving people an opportunity to learn," says Tucson Fire Department Battalion Chief Les P. Caid, who serves as the Metropolitan Medical Response System project manager in charge of disaster preparedness.

Caid, 48, has spent the better part of the last three years developing lines of communication between local first responders. Unlike many other U.S. cities, Tucson's hospitals are outfitted with protective gear and decontamination tents. Local pharmacists are part of a network that will help dispense medication in the event of a NBC attack at impromptu mass clinics.

But Tucson, like most communities, remains vulnerable in one main area: improving the ability to communicate among police officers, firefighters, medical workers and others because they don't have a dedicated radio frequency they can all use.

"That's a huge problem," says Caid. "That's a problem across the nation. We right now don't have the ability to talk to the police department. When you start talking about an operation that's going to include up to 12, 14 different agencies, including hospitals, public health, fire, police, sheriff's department, there are huge logistical problems there."

And there are financial hurdles as well. "It's a dollar problem," Caid says. "It costs money to take care of that program and budgets are tight."

With the local budget crunch, officials are looking to the federal government for help, but funding remains stalled. The Bush administration said it would spend $3.5 billion to help firefighters, police officers and other local officials prepare for future crises, but the bill authorizing the money has stalled in the Senate.

Even once the funding is approved, there's a big delay before those dollars reach the local level. "The 2001 Department of Justice dollars have yet to meet the street here in Tucson," he says.

A 1999 federal grant put Caid to work organizing the local program. Over the last three years, he's worked with UMC's pharmacology school, Pima Community College's Public Safety and Emergency Services Institute, law-enforcement agencies, local fire districts, transportation officials and others to develop emergency plans.

"The key to any kind of disaster response or preparedness training is education," Caid says. "In real estate it's location, location, location, and in disaster preparedness, it's education, education, education."

In this week's drill, officials will attempt to process 1,000 "patients" following a mock biological attack. Hundreds of volunteers will gather at the Tucson Convention Center to play the role of victims who must be treated following, say, an anthrax release. As they wait in line, they'll give assigned health histories so that the officials dispensing medication will be able to avoid allergic reactions or other complications. Meanwhile, state troopers will escort about six tons of medication from the nearest branch of the Center for Disease Control's National Pharmaceutical Stockpile for distribution.

If this were a real emergency, Caid says, the mass clinics would pop up across the community, although the locations remain classified for security reasons.

"The reason we're not giving out names of mass dispensing sites is because we've already got them picked out, we know where they're gonna be, but if the bad guys now where they are, they can sabotage them," Caid says "If we tell you ahead of time you have to go here every time, you might run right into the middle of the problem. These are all really dynamic events."

Despite the extensive planning, Caid expects slip-ups during the drill.

"We're going to make some mistakes because we're not perfect, but we can help somebody else learn so they don't make our mistake," Caid says. "They can make a different kind of mistake that we can learn from later on."