This is only a drill

Is Sacramento prepared for a terrorist attack?

Alphabet soup: CHP man at the EOC on Y2K. Translation: The California Highway Patrol at their station in the Emergency Operations Center on New Year’s Eve, 1999.

Alphabet soup: CHP man at the EOC on Y2K. Translation: The California Highway Patrol at their station in the Emergency Operations Center on New Year’s Eve, 1999.

Courtesy Of Sacramento County Office of Emergency Services

On a sweltering summer afternoon, 20,000 people pack Hornet Stadium on the campus of California State University, Sacramento, enduring the muggy heat to watch America’s finest amateur athletes compete in the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials. The enthusiastic crowd’s excitement builds with each new event; men, women and children roar approval from the grandstands as world and national records fall by the wayside. It’s a beautiful day.

Then the bomb goes off.

The device, in the parlance of those who study such things, is a “cocktail,” a mixture of high explosives and mustard gas. Shrapnel from the weapon rips through the crowd; the gas burns the eyes and skin of anyone who comes in contact with it. Several people are killed, dozens more are severely injured. Screams and the wails of sirens fill the air as the crowd chaotically stampedes toward the exits.

Before last month’s terrorist attack on America killed more than 6,000 people and destroyed the country’s sense of invulnerability forever, such a scenario might have seemed far-fetched to most Sacramentans. But those who provide Sacramento’s emergency services—the police and fire departments, the paramedics and hospitals, and the city and county government agencies responsible for coordinating the emergency response effort—know the drill. In fact, the scene described above was lifted from a field exercise conducted last year by local, state and national emergency service providers before the real U.S. Olympic Trials got underway.

“When you look at it, it’s a frightening scenario,” said Carol Hopwood, director of the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office of Emergency Services. “We’re used to doing fire, earthquakes and floods, but this is new.”

Major cities across the United States began preparing for possible terrorist attacks after the passage of Defense Against Weapons of Mass Destruction Act of 1996, which is more commonly known as Nunn-Lugar-Domenici Act. The bill, passed after the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993 and the Oklahoma City bombing, provided grant money to help cities like New York and Los Angeles prepare for terrorist attacks using high explosives, chemical and biological agents, and nuclear devices. Smaller metropolitan areas such as Sacramento were added to the list in 1998. The mock attack on the Olympic Trials was staged using grant money provided by Nunn-Lugar-Domenici.

During such drills, the county and city emergency service offices are responsible for setting up the Emergency Operations Center, or EOC. Depending on the nature of the disaster and building availability, the EOC is housed in either the Sacramento Community Center or La Sierra Community Center. Once on site, the EOC staff must contact more than 20 different agencies: Health and Human Services, Public Works, Flood Control, etc. The EOC is the nerve center linking city and county emergency service providers together; communication between these separate entities is the key to successfully responding to a disaster.

“One of the things we learned from the Olympic Trials drill is that we need better communication between the police and fire departments,” Hopwood said. During the drill, a hazardous material team from the fire department responded to the scene while the suspected terrorist was still present, Hopwood said. The police department’s HAZMAT team, which is also trained to deal directly with terrorists, should have been the first responder.

Discovering such discrepancies is the purpose of running the drills. It’s a process of trial and error. Previous exercises have demonstrated the necessity of hooking up fax machines and copiers in the EOC as soon as possible, in order to facilitate communication between outside agencies and the 100 people who staff the EOC.

“Most of the information that gets passed in the EOC gets passed on paper,” Hopwood explained. When the EOC was activated after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, staff were at first unable to provide respondents with a diagram of the EOC’s layout. To remedy this, the purchasing group in charge of providing copy machines was added to the initial contact list.

September 11 marked the first time the EOC was activated on such short notice. While Hopwood said there was more pressure than usual, she noted that “most of the people who respond to the EOC are not the excitable type.” County and city staff members set up the center in an hour and 40 minutes.

“What we found was that we could set up in under two hours,” Hopwood said. “That had been a concern raised during drills for Y2K.”

But setting up the EOC in less than two hours is still too long for Mary Lou Pierce, emergency services officer for the city of Sacramento. “We need our own turnkey facility that’s ready to go,” she said. “For a jurisdiction of our magnitude, two hours is not acceptable.”

Pierce’s concerns reflect the urgency that has enveloped the nation since the attack on America. The attack stirred fears in Americans that have remained dormant since the early days of the Cold War. Otherwise normal citizens are flocking to Army-Navy stores to purchase gas masks. Fallout shelters may soon be back in vogue. Government think tanks warn that the nation remains vulnerable to terrorist attack. All of this raises the question: Is it possible to prepare for attacks on the scale of the havoc wreaked upon New York City?

“At one point or another, you’re going to be overwhelmed, if the event is big enough,” said Rod Chong, deputy chief of the Sacramento City Fire Department.

“There’s no way you can prepare for something like what happened in New York,” agreed Bruce Wagner, disaster health coordinator for Sacramento County. Nevertheless, both Chong and Wagner are confident that Sacramento is prepared to handle similar, albeit smaller, events. Wagner cited a tabletop drill conducted last year, involving a mid-air collision between an airliner and a Lear jet over downtown Sacramento. “We predicted that this would not be the medically overwhelming issue some people expected it to be,” he said.

“Are we ready?” said Dr. Steve Tharratt, medical director for Sacramento’s emergency service providers. “Yes. But our biggest challenge is our hospital system. There’s not a lot of elasticity in it. If you suddenly had 200 patients who needed medical treatment immediately, we’d have to do a little scrambling.”

Tharratt pointed out that California’s status as a disaster-prone state ironically makes it better equipped to deal with potential terrorist attacks than other states. For instance, after the East Bay Hills fire in 1991 demonstrated poor communication between cities and counties, the Legislature mandated the adoption of the Standardized Emergency Management System (SEMS). The system provides Sacramento’s emergency responders with a uniform method for communicating with other cities and counties in the same mutual aid region. That means if Sacramento runs out of hospital beds, hospitals in the surrounding counties in the region not affected by the event can be called upon to help pick up the slack.

“It’s been a big bonus, to have that mindset of inclusiveness for all the institutions involved,” agreed Pierce.

Not that SEMS and frequent drilling have worked all the bugs out of Sacramento’s emergency response capabilities. While the people interviewed for this story were confident that Sacramento is prepared for at least a limited terrorist attack, the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., presented a far less rosy scenario in a report released late last year, “Defending America: Redefining the Conceptual Borders of Homeland Defense.”

“In many cases, departments and agencies are defining the nature and the intensity of the threat to meet their own internal needs or perceptions, or are acting on assumptions that imply a far better ability to predict the future than actually exists,” the report said. “As yet, there is only limited coordination in many federal, state and local efforts except at the organizational chart level.”

The study also found that, “No agency provides a meaningful description of its future program, future costs, milestones or measures of effectiveness.” This criticism rings particularly true for Sacramento, where the multi-hazard emergency operations plan used by city and county officials remains in the draft stage, waiting for, among other things, a rewritten section on responding to terrorist acts.

Keeping a pool of trained responders also remains an issue, according to Hopwood. Most of the responders have regular full-time jobs. When they get promoted, leave a position, or otherwise move on, they have to be replaced by new responders, who in turn must be trained. “There’s nothing worse than going to the EOC and finding someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing,” Hopwood said. “Effective communication is the key, and it’s the most difficult thing to do right. We’re not through with this; the training is ongoing.”

“We’re handling our end of it fairly well,” Chong said. “We’re training and we’re keeping up with the equipment.” Follow-up is extremely important, he added. After the Olympic Trials drill revealed that fire department personnel needed training in decontaminating victims of chemical attacks, the department conducted a month-long seminar at McClellan Air Force Base.

In the long run, though, training and drills can only take you so far. There’s no substitute for actual experience. “In an actual incident, you’re going to find a lot of weak spots in the system,” Chong said. That’s the nature of the “new war” the United States is currently embroiled in. It’s difficult to prepare for the unexpected. But everyone interviewed for this story agreed that it’s a task that must be undertaken.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of changes because of what happened in New York,” Wagner said. “A lot of people who didn’t take this seriously before are taking it seriously now.”