Letter to the Editor Published in The Washington Post
To the Editor:
The June 26 op-ed essay by Frank Cilluffo and Thomas Herlihy (“First Responders to a Sneak Attack”) contained important insights into the vital role that local fire, medical and law enforcement officials could play in responding to a chemical or biological weapons attack. The authors may be right in asserting that “even in the nation’s capital, the battle will be either won or lost by the first responders.” But their reasoning reflects the sort of incomplete thought process that could contribute to disastrous consequences in a major “chem-bio” incident.
First of all, the authors have neglected the possibility that local first responders may be the victims or even the targets of a chemical or biological attack. Police, fire and medical facilities are often located in or near centers of government that rank high among the likely targets of terrorists. Even if they are not targets, chemical and biological agents — unlike conventional explosives — have persistence and drift characteristics that could quickly carry their deadly effects to the vicinity of first responders.
Second, Cilluffo and Herlihy seem to assume that a chemical or biological incident would be just that — an isolated incident. But it might be part of a coordinated series of attacks launched by a foreign power rather than a small terrorist group. Military planners have been warning for years that future adversaries could adopt such “asymmetric” strategies to bypass the U. S. advantage in conventional forces. A coordinated national attack probably requires a coordinated national response.
Third, the authors have underestimated the secondary consequences of a chem-bio attack for civil order in affected cities. The chaos that would follow a major incident combined with the concentration of law enforcement personnel at the site of the incident could lead to uncontrolled panic and widespread looting elsewhere in the city. The quick availability of outside forces could be essential to reestablishing order.
Finally, Cilluffo and Herlihy have little to say about the challenge of maintaining performance standards across a decentralized patchwork of state and local jurisdictions. A major chemical or biological incident in the New York metropolitan area could involve responders from three states, dozens of local jurisdictions, and numerous specialized authorities. The authors are certainly right to call for “seamless integration” of the efforts of all these groups with the federal government, but when in the past has that ever happened?
The bottom line is that the nation needs an integrated nationwide response system that does not automatically presume the survival or effectiveness of local first responders. The most obvious candidate to assume this role is the National Guard since many of its Cold-War missions are no longer necessary and it has an established infrastructure in every state. In fact, in many states the head of the National Guard is already the statewide emergency-response coordinator.
Local responders need adequate training and equipment, but even with those items we can’t assume they will be up to the task when what we all fear finally occurs.
Loren B. Thompson, Ph.D.
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