Anti-Terrorist Preparations Lag as Training Becomes Bureaucracy

Officers, responders call homeland security training requirements a moving target

Four years after the Sept. 11 attacks, Santa Clara County's police officers, firefighters and other first responders are stuck in classrooms reviewing the most basic details about nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, the terrorist threats of the future.

It's like asking them to repeat high school after they've graduated: Almost all of them have covered the same information in classes taken years or months before.

Yet because of changing federal and state requirements, they have to go back and prove to federal authorities that they know the material. And that's blocking officials throughout the county from spending their Department of Homeland Security money on more practical, hands-on training that officers want and need.

A monthslong Mercury News examination of how well-prepared Santa Clara County first responders are for a terrorist act found:

Only about $1 million of homeland security training money had been spent, 15 percent of the $6.8 million set aside.

Those coordinating the spending lack comprehensive data on what training the county's 2,800 police officers and 1,500 firefighters received before homeland security money arrived.

A countywide committee is still months away from finalizing an overall training plan, even though the first federal training money was provided more than two years ago.

Key to response Having enough well-trained first responders essential
Everyone agrees that having a sufficient number of well-trained first responders is the key to effective anti-terrorism response.

"If you buy a whole bunch of equipment and don't have the appropriate training to go along with it, it's going to be relatively useless," said Gilroy Fire Chief Dale Foster, once acting chief in San Jose.

Of the $32.3 million in federal homeland security grants that have gone to Santa Clara County and the city of San Jose, just 21 percent has been targeted for training. The majority has been used to buy equipment.

Sheriff Laurie Smith, who sits on the committee that divvies up the county money, said the emphasis on equipment over training occurred because neither the state nor federal government offered much guidance on how to spend homeland security grants.

However, the federal Department of Homeland Security did provide an approved list of equipment, and in response agencies in the county turned in far more requests for high-tech gear than the money could cover.

"In stating the obvious, equipment needs were a priority because with or without training, equipment must be in place to facilitate a response to any type of WMD (weapons of mass destruction) incident," according to a written statement from the sheriff's office.

While officials quickly began to buy equipment as soon as federal money started flowing in after Sept. 11, they've been far slower to commit money to training. Though the first substantial grants began arriving in March 2003, it was July 2004 before two planners began sorting out what classes were needed. And more than a year later, a countywide committee is still trying to hammer out a master plan to guide future training efforts.

Now, after months of delay, hundreds of police officers and firefighters are just starting to satisfy the latest requirements imposed by the state and federal governments. In many cases, they're sitting through short "refresher" courses before taking tests to prove they are qualified for more sophisticated training that will allow them to practice the skills needed in an attack.

Some will take both a six-hour federal terrorism awareness class required by the federal government and an eight-hour class mandated by the state Legislature, even though the courses overlap and largely repeat material that most first responders in Santa Clara County already know.

"I believe that every first responder in the nation ought to have the same basic level of training," said Santa Clara Police Chief Stephen D. Lodge. "That's a laudable goal. But San Jose and to a lesser extent my department . . . we've got more."

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