||Secret and Complex Drills:
New York Police Training for Catastrophic Terrorism
New York Times
Feb 15, 2004
The New York Police Department, working with city health officials, federal authorities and other agencies, has been preparing for a possible attack with nuclear, biological or chemical weapons, perhaps the most daunting threat facing municipalities in a post-9/11 world.
Meeting in secret and conducting complex drills, the department has brought together government agencies in a broad effort for much of the last year. In doing so, it has put together a program that some national security and law enforcement officials describe as unrivaled among American cities.
Police officials say special units have trained and drilled, for instance, to board cruise ships from helicopters and piers and begun reviewing floor plans of most large Midtown theaters, conducting exercises inside some to improve their ability to respond to a possible attack, in the aftermath of the deadly siege of a Moscow theater two years ago. This spring, city and federal officials say, the police will work alongside the city health department and other agencies to open a pilot program that they hope will ultimately allow officials to test the air across the city for biological agents quickly and constantly.
The department has also begun to prepare for its role in a sweeping citywide plan to get antibiotics or vaccine to every resident after a widespread attack with biological weapons, and is drafting security plans for some 200 sites that could function as distribution centers.
Officials say the department has even taken to the city's streets to conduct a drill with the city's medical examiner's office to prepare for a chemical weapons attack that would litter the streets with contaminated bodies.
"We're thinking about the unthinkable — what a few years ago was the unthinkable," Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said in a recent interview, noting that the preparations were not in response to a specific or direct threat. "It's something we're trying to take head-on, but the scope and magnitude of the problems are daunting."
Department officials said that much of the planning was still preliminary, and much remained to be done. And already, they acknowledge, they have recognized that some measures may simply be unworkable. The department, for example, has deep concerns about its ability to enforce a quarantine in all or part of the city.
"They are trying to do what Washington is supposed to be doing, but isn't," said a former national security official in the Clinton and the second Bush administrations, Richard A. Clarke. Weeks spent with department officials and exercises in recent months in which officials brainstormed and struggled with the novel problems an attack could pose underscored both the epic challenges facing the city and the size of its ambitions.
Extensive interviews show, among other things, that the department is scheduled to begin chemical and biological training for entire units on Wednesday, with the goal of having 10,000 officers ready in time for the Republican National Convention, which is scheduled for Aug. 30 through Sept. 2 at Madison Square Garden. The department, too, is helping to prepare guidelines so police detectives and F.B.I. agents can conduct joint investigations with City Health Department epidemiologists in the event of a biological attack.
Some Health Department officials will also obtain top-secret security clearances so they too can use classified information as part of those inquiries, officials said.
The department is also preparing a plan to house and feed thousands of police officers, in some cases in schools, to help keep them working in the aftermath of a catastrophic attack.
The Lessons of Sept. 11
The agency's past performance in responding to terrorist attacks has not been an unmitigated success. Indeed, some critics have said that major gaps in coordination and planning were evident in its response to the Sept. 11 attacks. But officials say that it was partly to address many of those sorts of issues and to plan for the threats of the future that it brought in a team of experts, including David Cohen, a former top official at the Central Intelligence Agency, and Michael Sheehan, the State Department's counterterrorism chief under President Bill Clinton.
After a huge attack, officials acknowledge, the responsibilities of the Police Department would be enormous and potentially create a significant strain on manpower, despite a force of roughly 37,000 that makes it the nation's largest municipal police agency. Officers would be needed to provide security for hospitals, drug distribution centers and other locations. They would also play some role in securing or transporting the drugs from the strategic pharmaceutical stockpile, which is where the city would get antibiotics or vaccine to distribute after a biological attack.
More officers would be required to maintain order in a potentially panicky city, which could experience an exodus at the same time the department would be seeking to increase patrols to deter a possible secondary attack as they were investigating the one that had already occurred.
The city also faces other potential obstacles. While a catastrophic attack would undoubtedly put the police to work beside the Fire Department, as well as a variety of other agencies, the two uniformed services have yet to complete a set of formal rules for how they should respond to disasters, a requirement to receive federal funds, despite plans to complete them by last summer. And enduring tensions between the two agencies remain.
Further complicating matters, the city's Department of Emergency Management, the agency charged under the City Charter with coordinating the response during a disaster, has been without a commissioner since October.
"The traditional rivalry between the police and other departments is worse than ever," said Jerome M. Hauer, a former acting assistant secretary of health and human services for biodefense in the Bush administration who now heads a biodefense center at George Washington University. Mr. Hauer also served as the city's first emergency management director.
A spokesman for Mr. Kelly, Paul J. Browne, dismissed the criticism, noting that Mr. Hauer campaigned for Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's onetime rival, Mark Green. He cited what he said were many measures Mr. Kelly had taken to improve relations with the Fire Department.
But Mr. Kelly acknowledged that no one was overconfident.
"I know that we've done more about this problem than any other police department in the country, but that's not enough," Mr. Kelly said. "It's like an onion: you peel it off and there are so many other issues that emerge."
A High-Tech Wall of Defense
Early detection, experts have long argued, is perhaps the most important aspect of a response to a biological or chemical attack. And so for months, New York has been trying to acquire the most sophisticated detection equipment available.
To that end, the city has been working with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, developers of the Autonomous Pathogen Detection System. These devices not only continuously monitor the air, but also automatically detect and identify, through multiple simultaneous testing, the presence of more than 100 different bacteria or viruses - within 45 minutes.
Fully automated, they operate 24 hours a day for an entire week without servicing or human intervention, said John M. Dzenitis, a Livermore engineer in charge of the program.
J. Patrick Fitch, the head of Livermore's Chemical and Biological National Security Program, said the detector's ability to test for more than 100 agents by seeking protein and DNA signatures distinguished it from other detectors. He said Washington had invested almost $20 million since 1998 in developing the system, which has been field-tested at the Albuquerque and San Francisco airports, and in Washington's Metro transit system.
"This is as close to instant detection as any system has come," said Dani-Margot Zavasky, a physician and infectious-disease specialist whom the city's counterterrorism bureau hired as its medical director in 2002.
Because germs spread rapidly, hours can mean the difference between warding off an epidemic and allowing it to take hold. If the city were attacked with smallpox, it would have only four days to vaccinate people potentially exposed to the virus, which kills about a third of those infected.
But city and federal officials caution that pathogen detection system is not ready to operate outdoors or on its own because, among other things, it has yet to be "ruggedized." "That means we don't know if it can function well in ice or heat or high winds or with someone climbing all over it," one federal official said.
Federal and city counterterrorism officials said they hoped that several of the new detectors would be installed in time for use during the Republican convention.
For the moment, then, the city remains reliant on the technology in place in 30 cities nationwide. The system, known as Biowatch, uses the concept of environmental air monitors to sniff the air for about 15 potentially lethal pathogens. Ten of the portable, nondescript monitors are scattered throughout the city.
But Biowatch, officials acknowledge, does not provide real-time detection. Federal officials or contract workers must collect filters from the monitors each day - or more often during a heightened threat - and take them to government labs for testing. This results in at least a 24-hour delay before results are known.
But similar surveillance is going on elsewhere throughout the city. The Police Department has been using more than 700 personal radiation detectors for more than a year to identify unusual radioactive materials, checking trucks on the street to cars and garages around the city, among other areas.
And in a 14-month-old federal program, employees of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey equipped with radiation detection devices have been stationed at the entrances to New York bridges and tunnels, subways, airports and ports.
Eight Million Vaccinations
"No other city is as eager for everything we have to offer as New York," said Parney Albright of the Department of Homeland Security.
The city's plan to vaccinate residents or distribute medications after a sweeping biological attack or outbreak of infectious disease, initially formulated before the Sept. 11 attacks, remains a considerable logistical challenge that would involve more than a dozen agencies and, officials say, tens of thousands of city workers and volunteers.
In the worst case of a large attack, the working plan provides for more than 200 distribution points in the five boroughs, where as many as eight million people would go for medication or vaccinations.
The plan, known as the POD's plan, an acronym for point of dispensing, was created by the city's Office of Emergency Management, which first began working on it in 1998. Officials there and at the City Health Department, which plays perhaps the biggest role, say it will allow the city to vaccinate or distribute medication to the entire population, moving roughly 40,000 people through each POD, in 5 to 10 days' time.
Officials acknowledge that the goal - giving the city the capability to provide medication quickly enough to save lives - would be extraordinarily difficult to achieve in the kind of crisis atmosphere that an attack with smallpox or other pathogen would create.
But the health commissioner, Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, along with emergency management and other agency officials, call the plan flexible, carefully considered and exhaustive. They say it will get the job done.
"I'm not minimizing how difficult it would be," Dr. Frieden said. But he cited the city's sweeping smallpox vaccination effort more than 50 years ago as an example. "In 1947, the city vaccinated six million people in three weeks, so it's been done before," he said.
The plan, subject to revision, could also be instituted on a much smaller scale, such as for a neighborhood.
Police officials, working with the Health Department and the Office of Emergency Management., have begun to put together their own specific programs for each of the 203 POD's, which would be in specially selected city buildings in the five boroughs, city schools among them. The Police Department has dispatched a commander to each POD location to begin drafting a plan to help get the POD's up and running.
Police officers would provide security outside the buildings, and school security officers would be stationed inside, another official said.
Planning Without End
"I don't think our planning will ever be done," Dr. Frieden said. "We always want to be more prepared.''
Officials pointed to a distribution drill in May 2002 run by the Office of Emergency Management, along with the Health Department, the Police and Fire Departments and other agencies. During the daylong exercise, called Operation TriPOD, a single POD was able to process more than 1,400 people an hour, well beyond, the 400-an-hour rate each of the 200 POD's would need to handle to vaccinate or provide medication to eight million people in five days, officials said.
The proposal on the table at an emergency response strategy session one Saturday late last year was ambitious but complicated: a plan to distribute atropine anti-nerve agent auto-injectors to all city police units to enable them to respond more quickly to a chemical weapons attack.
The Office of Emergency Management, city hospitals, ambulances and police emergency teams now have 100,000 Mark I auto-injectors that American soldiers in Iraq were given in the early days of the war to protect them from a deadly nerve agent attack.
To be effective, the needles containing the powerful antidote must be jabbed into a victim exposed to a nerve agent within minutes of exposure. But the injectors are useless against non-nerve agents. And administering this powerful drug to someone who has not been exposed to such an agent could have severe and adverse health consequences, Dr. Zavasky warned those at the meeting that day.
The atropine injection kits, she also noted, were intended mainly for military use - for young, healthy soldiers. They have not been widely tested on civilians, she said.
"For most chemical agents, removing clothing and washing with soap and water eliminates 85 to 95 percent of the chemicals," she said.
In the end, then, the city decided not to expand its distribution of the antidotes to greater numbers of police officers, which, officials said, would be impractical and risky.
Keeping It Real
As the city wrestles with the question of how best to prepare for a major attack, officials say, deciding what not to attempt is almost as important as deciding what to go ahead and try.
"Be realistic," Mr. Kelly cautioned at a recent gathering of senior police officials.
That realism, officials say, can be dictated in part by financial, legal and practical constraints. And federal counterterrorism officials and private experts have praised Mr. Kelly's decision not to opt for what terrorism experts call a theoretical "gold standard" in efforts to deter and, if need be, respond to an attack with unconventional weapons that may not be practical.
And so, because of cost or logistical reasons, the city has also ruled out developing its own stockpile of drugs and vaccines for police use in an unconventional terrorist attack. Instead, it has chosen to rely on the federal government's strategic stockpiles, which are supposed to be able to be delivered to New York in a matter of hours.
A critical issue police officials have agonized over is the question of enforcing a quarantine and isolation in the event of an epidemic caused by natural or unnatural causes, like a terrorist attack.
Initially, the Police Department considered devising its own plan to isolate those who might have been exposed to a highly infectious, potentially lethal agent. But city health officials have begun to formulate a plan to persuade New Yorkers exposed to a deadly infectious pathogen to stay at home. The plan would use inducements, which in some cases would include food deliveries and medical care.
Moreover, the city recently changed the health code to allow the city to detain anyone health officials suspect of having being exposed to a deadly infectious pathogen.