Busting bioterrorists part of police picture

Posted: Tuesday, March 05, 2002

Being a police officer today involves a lot more than just busting crooks. And in the wake of Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the threat of anthrax, the people who protect us are getting more specialized training.

Responding to the threat of mass destruction is one new area of training, even though both those who offer and those who take the training said the threat to Alaska is small.

Jan Henry, coordinator for Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management, said he believes the terrorist threat to this area is not very great.

"These classes are designed to be presented nationwide, to large cities and to rural areas," Henry said. "Here on the Kenai Peninsula, we spell terrorism with a small 't.' If a biological weapon was dispersed in a big city in the Lower 48, we might see the results within four to eight days, as it traveled to us by air or by automobile, but we would never be the target."

Henry said on the peninsula, the focus needs to be on small-scale rather than large-scale attack.

"Someone could drive up to the courthouse with a grudge and a truck-load of dynamite. That's more the kind of threat we face in Alaska," he said. "The man who shot a hole in the pipeline is a perfect example."

Soldotna Police Chief Shirley Gifford agreed.

"We don't have the mass," said Gifford, who attended the recent training. "The threat to this area is not what it would be to an area like New York. Too few people, too much area to cover."

The class, which was two days in length, was attended by 34 people Feb. 19 and 20. The teachers -- John Guydo and Tom Shehan -- work for the National Emergency Response and Training Center at Texas A&M University in College Station.

One member of the Alaska State Troopers and several members of the Kenai and Soldotna police departments attended. Those present also included people from the Red Cross, Central Peninsula General Hospital and Central Emergency Services.

Included were subjects like containment, the effect of different toxins, what to do in the event of nuclear war or other forms of large-scale attacks. Members of the class also toured water treatment facilities, power facilities, the airport and other parts of the borough's infrastructure.

"The idea was to learn to assess what security weaknesses these structures might have and to see how security might be improved for the future," Gifford said.

Those attending performed several exercises during the course of training, including dividing into smaller groups and checking different sites to look for the security strengths and weaknesses of a building.

"Even though we believe the threat of terrorism to be about zero here, we still want to know what our resources are in the event of an emergency," Gifford said.

Henry said he believes Alaskans face a far greater chance of dying from something ordinary than they would from anything as exotic as anthrax or most other biological weapons.

"Only five people died nationwide from anthrax," said Henry. "Approximately 140 calls were made to the Alaska Division of Emergency Services thus far, reporting the presence of anthrax. All were proven to be false."

State Trooper Charles Tressler said that it was important for police and emergency personnel to know what to do in the event of a bioterrorist emergency.

"In the past, we had no protocol on what to do in the event of this type of emergency," he said. "The anthrax scare and Sept. 11 gave people the incentive to decide what department was going to handle these kind of emergencies, and what kind of response we were going to initiate."

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