May 14, 2002 | News Releases on Department of Homeland Security

Feds Must Train "First Responders" in More Organized Manner, Analysts Say

WASHINGTON, May 14, 2002-America's "first responders"-police officers, firefighters and emergency medical teams-need more and better coordinated federal training to ensure the nation is adequately prepared for a terrorist attack using chemical, biological or radiological weapons, a new Heritage Foundation paper says.

The Sept. 11 attacks proved that local authorities have as big a role in fighting terrorism as the armed forces or the FBI, Heritage homeland defense experts Michael Scardaville and Jack Spencer write. At the Pentagon, for example, Virginia's Arlington County Fire Department was the first to arrive at the scene, fight the fire and declare the area safe to enter.

But, Scardaville and Spencer caution, had biological or chemical weapons been used in the attacks, the firefighters likely would have been unprepared. From 1996 to 1999, the federal government provided training to only 134,000 of the nation's 9 million police officers, firefighters and ambulance crews-and only 2 percent of those 134,000 first responders has had training with actual chemicals such as sarin or nerve gas.

"If this deficiency in training continues, far too few of America's first responders will be adequately prepared for the possibility of a terrorist attack using chemical, biological or even radiological weapons," they write.

Federal disorganization is largely responsible for this failing. The analysts note that in 1996, Congress passed one bill that gave the Pentagon money to train the "first responders" in America's 120 largest cities. That same year, it passed another bill authorizing the Justice Department to provide training and equipment to fire departments and ambulance crews to combat terrorism.

"In other words," Scardaville and Spencer say, "Congress effectively assigned two federal agencies nearly the same mission."

To improve preparedness among the nation's firefighters, police officers and emergency medical technicians, President Bush's "first responder" program needs to be expanded, the Heritage analysts write. They suggest creating a national network of five training facilities, run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and modeled after the Justice Department's Center for Domestic Preparedness in Anniston, Ala., to promote easier access to training.

The federal government also should use the National Guard to train firefighters, police officers and emergency medical crews, Scardaville and Spencer say. Because the Guard is widespread and already plays a key part in homeland defense, such a task would be relatively easy: The Army National Guard has more than 3,000 armories nationwide, and the Air National Guard has 140 units throughout the United States and its territories. That connection with so many cities and towns makes the Guard ideally suited to train local police and firefighters, the analysts say.

"By law and tradition, the Guard connects local communities to the federal government," they write. "Units are located in every American community, and they have the capabilities, legal authority and structure to respond to attacks on the homeland."

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