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Teams train for homeland terror attack

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Teams train for homeland terror attack
By Robert Gehrke
The Associated Press

FAIRFAX, Va. -- Search and rescue teams in Salt Lake City and 27 other cities have been equipped and trained to respond to chemical, biological or nuclear attacks, as part of a larger effort by the federal government to brace first responders for potential terrorist attacks.
The training is an important tool for states responding to potential incidents, said Michael Brown, an undersecretary at the Homeland Security Department.
"Now we've got people who are the first responders, who are able to get in the building, do the extraction and also do the decontamination," said Brown.
The Homeland Security Department provided $32 million in grants and funding through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to equip and train the urban search and rescue teams.
The crews are trained to search for victims in the concrete and steel of buildings toppled by a natural disaster or bombing. After Sept. 11, 2001, teams from across the country spent days cutting through the rubble of the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
The FEMA training adds eight new members trained in hazardous material detection and decontamination to each task force, bringing the total number of workers to 70.

They are equipped with protective suits, breathing tanks, gas masks, radiation and air sampling machinery, and antidotes and medicine to treat illnesses caused by radiation, chemical or biological exposure. A bright yellow plastic tent with spray nozzles can be erected with heated showers to decontaminate rescuers, victims, equipment or even the rescue dogs.
"It's like Christmas," said Dewey Perks, a battalion chief on the Fairfax County urban search and rescue crew.
The whole system can be deployed within 15 minutes. And the equipment is interchangeable, meaning a task force brought in to assist in another city doesn't need to bring its equipment to the site.
Now crews can be aggressive responding to a collapse and have their health protected without having to wait for test results from the Environmental Protection Agency, Perks said. The air-sampling technology and breathing equipment are also useful in an ordinary building collapse to measure levels of concrete dust and asbestos and keep rescuers safe.
"We started looking at this after Oklahoma City," Perks said, referring to the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. "If that incident had been a dirty incident, how would not only the federal government, but the state and locals respond?"
The goal was to develop a regimen for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, but after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, there was additional urgency and importance placed on the program, Perks said.
There are eight crews in California, where the urban search and rescue teams originated as an earthquake response program. Virginia and Florida each have two each and there are teams in Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Texas, Nebraska, Missouri, Indiana, Tennessee, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New York and Maryland.
There are no immediate plans to expand the program. There are too many other needs in equipping and supporting first responders, Brown said.
Salt Lake Urban Search and Rescue, also called Utah Task Force One, was established in May 1991. The team includes members from the Salt Lake City and County fire departments and Rocky Mountain Rescue Dogs.

Copyright 2003, The Salt Lake Tribune.

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