After Iraq: Security, Economic Worries
Prepared/Not Prepared: Take Your Pick
By DAVID GREENBERG
So just how vulnerable is L.A. to a terrorist-related event?
After tens of millions of dollars that’s been spent since Sept. 11, 2001 on gas masks, medical supplies, passenger screening equipment, trace detection devices and countless other bits of gadgetry, there is no definitive answer.
Some in L.A. government, most notably City Councilman Jack Weiss, have feared the worst.
“L.A. is as unprepared as any big city in the U.S.,” said Weiss, who is police advisory to Mayor James Hahn’s Homeland Security Cabinet.
Roy Burns, president of a union representing 7,000 L.A. County deputy sheriffs, is even more strident: “We believe that it there is a terrorist attack, there will be catastrophic consequences to the people of L.A. County.”
And yet, Larry Albert, special agent in charge of the FBI’s counter-terrorism unit in Los Angeles, has a different perspective. “We’re very confident we can meet any demands,” he said.
L.A. faces a shortage of manpower, has no communications system to link its police and fire departments, and carries only enough bio-terrorism medical supplies and protective equipment to cover a tiny fraction of the population.
L.A.’s emergency response system is widely considered to be among the best in the nation after years spent preparing for earthquakes and brush fires.
Take your pick.
The problem about measuring risk is that it’s relative. Absolute protection from a worst-case scenario is unrealistic both in cost and practicality.
Driving two blocks to the corner grocer is not a risk-free exercise. Nor is traveling at 30,000 feet to New York. When it comes to determining the risk of a terrorist attack whether large-scale or freelance the question becomes not only how much should government invest but what are the odds of it being necessary?
Insurance Services Office Inc., a New Jersey insurance advisory company, has divided the country into three tiers for purposes of terrorism risk. In the first tier are New York, Washington, San Francisco and Chicago, while L.A. Houston, Philadelphia, Boston and Seattle are in the second tier (and everywhere else in the third tier).
“Terrorists choose their targets based on a concentration of high-value properties and those with high symbolic importance,” ISO’s Dave Dasgupta told the Sacramento Bee.
Ever since Sept. 11, local law enforcement and other government officials have been pressing Washington for many millions of dollars in federal aid much as they would after a major earthquake. But unlike the relatively quick response after a pinpointed natural disaster, this time around everyone is clamoring for a piece of the action.
The $3.5 billion that Congress approved for homeland security remains mired in red tape, leaving this cash-strapped region, like others, scrapping to pay for security-related overtime, equipment and training.
No one knows yet how much the county and city will receive. In one $566.3 million appropriation, California is earmarked for $45 million, but officials said they don’t expect to see much of that until at least Memorial Day.
So what if the money doesn’t show up? Is Los Angeles as ill prepared as some would claim?
L.A. has had experience handling major disasters. Its earthquake safety codes would help buildings withstand explosives, perhaps better than other parts of the country.
And in the 18 months since the terrorist attacks, much has been done to make the region safer perhaps incrementally, perhaps more than that.
At LAX, 58 explosion detection systems have been installed for check-in systems, and 272 explosion trace detection devices for carry-on baggage.
The Transportation Security Administration has hired and trained 2,800 passenger screeners, and installed 1,200 surveillance cameras inside the terminals and motion detection sensors around eight miles of upgraded fencing around the airport’s perimeter.
At the Port of Los Angeles, stepped up Coast Guard patrols are guarding container ships.
In the event of any attack, local law enforcement will be aided by agents from the FBI, which hired 900 additional agents last year and expects to hire 900 more this year, mostly in the area of counter-intelligence.
‘100 percent more prepared’
The county’s 2,700 public and private paramedics have been trained to protect themselves and treat victims of a chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive attack.
The county Department of Health Services’ stockpile of medical and pharmaceutical supplies is enough to treat 5,000 to 35,000 people, depending on the type of emergency. After exhausting its own supplies, the county could then draw from a federal surplus (though victims would have to wait up to 12 hours for treatment).
“Certain medications are extremely expensive so we can only afford so many,” said Carol Gunter, acting director of the health department’s Emergency Management Services Agency. “We’re 100 percent more prepared than we were after 9/11, but we’ve got a long way to go.”
The concern is that L.A.’s response system hasn’t been tested the way New York’s was 18 months ago. The 1994 Northridge earthquake was a disaster for certain pockets of the region but not for all of L.A. And loss of life was limited.
The situation could be quite different, law enforcement officials warn, if someone decides to blow up Los Angeles International Airport California’s most vulnerable site, according to state Attorney General Bill Lockyer or tries to infuse anthrax in the air.
County health personnel, for example, are just beginning to receive the equipment needed to respond to a chemical or biological attack.
Every two-person paramedic vehicle is equipped with a cache of chemical antidotes to block the effects of a nerve agent when injected into victims.
But only 40 of the 82 hospitals countywide are earmarked for a slice of the $3.6 million federal money to buy 12 decontamination suits for each facility.
Police and firefighters must wait at least two weeks before receiving the protective gear the City Council agreed to buy for $5 million on March 18. “We should have gotten these sooner than later,” Weiss said.
The city’s buildings are another concern. No less than 549 sites in L.A. alone have been identified by public safety officials as high-risk. In addition to the ports and LAX, officials believe that movie studios, synagogues, bridges, Dodger Stadium and Staples Center could be targeted.
One worrisome scenario: multiple bombings.
Only 50 percent of Los Angeles Fire Department firefighters are trained to search collapsed buildings. That requires knowledge of areas prone to a secondary collapse and use of fiber optic cameras and sound equipment to find victims in the dark or in remote locations.
“We don’t want to hold back when there are lives at stake,” said LAFD Battalion Chief Robert Franco. “But we’d like to know that the people that remain in the city are just as highly trained.”
No matter the target, any havoc could be made worse by the inability of the county’s 51 police agencies to participate in the same radio frequency as the county Sheriff’s Communications Center, the East L.A. operations room charged with organizing and deploying all police, fire and health personnel.
Dispatchers wouldn’t be able to warn first responders who lack protective gear to stay away from hazardous situations. On-scene coordination would be more difficult.
County officials want a new $41 million frequency-blending system. Instead, they have had to settle for donations of radio equipment from law enforcement agencies that need a link to the center.
“We’re still in a situation where a lot of agencies can’t talk to each other,” said sheriff’s Capt. Robert Sedita, who oversees the communications center. “The only thing that’s going to solve this problem is funding.”
The county and the city emergency operations centers, which coordinate all responses, went into full operation last Tuesday as the nation went into its second highest terrorist warning level (labeled Orange at the federal and county levels and Level 4 in the city).
Already, public safety and health operations are beginning to feel understaffed. LAPD patrol units are placing a higher priority on high-risk sites, including drive-by checks every one or two hours.
A terrorist attack at home or at U.S. government facilities abroad would move the nation and region to a Level 5 threat. In that scenario, all police units would be working indefinite 12-hour shifts seven days per week.
Locally, that means traffic accident reports would not be filled out unless there were significant injury. Nor would police respond to non-violent disturbance calls or many alarm calls.
With only 9,128 officers the L.A. City Council last year authorized a 10,196-person force and Police Chief William Bratton has hinted at wanting 12,000 officers full coverage would mean overtime that is currently not available in the department’s budget.
“You could literally double the budget of the police department by canceling days off,” said LAPD Capt. Charles Beck, who heads the department’s 325-officer central division covering four square miles of the downtown area.
The county sheriff’s force, which has dropped to 8,100 deputies from more than 9,000 before Sept. 11, faces similar problems.
Said Sedita: “Although we’ve made some inroads in enhancing public safety communications and other areas, we still have a long way to go to get it to the level we believe it should be.”
But what exactly is that level? And even if it somehow manages to be reached, what level of protection can it offer Angelenos?
There may not be an answer to those questions.
“In times of budgetary constraints, we have to prioritize,” said Chief Doyle Campbell, head of the County Sheriff’s homeland security unit. “It is a balancing act.”
– Evacuation: Make sure you know what to do in the event of a building evacuation. Know your floor wardens or marshals and review with other employees what you will do, who you will communicate with, how you will communicate, what you will need to communicate, where you will meet and when evacuation will be necessary.
– Supplies: Consider keeping a flashlight and some basic supplies in your work area. Floor wardens should know where the equipment is and make sure that any consumable supplies have been replenished. Also check your radios to be sure they have a full charge, and that first aid supplies are in place and adequate.
– Notification: The top manager of the company should consider the circumstances under which emergency actions should be taken.
– Communication: Review how you will communicate with each other in the event of an emergency during business hours and after hours. Ensure that all telephone numbers are updated. This includes hard copy lists, speed dial programming and office phone and cellular phones, personal digital assistants, or PDA’s, and contact management software.
– Strategy: Ensure there is a business continuity plan in place and that it is up to date. Managers should review procedures and contingencies with their staffs.
– Supplies: Ensure there are adequate supplies of critical items on hand. Generally, a one-week supply (minimum) for blank checks, forms, paper stocks, printing supplies, etc.
– Computers: Ensure that critical data is backed-up, including desktop workstations, PDA’s and laptops, and be sure to store the backup media in a location out of the office.
– Can they continue to supply critical services or supplies?
– Do they have a contingency plan in place?
– Is there an alternate location and phone number?
– How and under what circumstances will they contact you?
– Do you have contact information for key personnel?
– Are there service level agreements in place?
– Keep a small supply of cash on hand ($100-$500) in case normal electronic payment methods are unavailable.
– Keep at least a half tank of gas in your car. Also keep a spare change of clothes and toiletries in your trunk.
– Make sure you have enough food and water for up to a week. Verify expiration dates and replenish as necessary. Consider special needs, such as baby formula or prescription drugs.
– Check with your children’s school or day care provider to know what their plans are and ensure that they have the correct contact information.
– Have an emergency contact number, preferably out-of-state with a friend or relative.
Source: MLC & Associates Inc., Business Journal research