Anti-Terrorist Preparations Lag as Training Becomes Bureaucracy

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."

So why are officers repeating the classes? Because to get more federal money for advanced training and equipment, all first responders must meet the federal government's most basic standards. "If we're not finished by 2007, there'll be no more homeland security money," said San Jose's director of emergency preparedness, Frances L. Edwards.

The model for anti-terrorism training is the peacetime military, which trains continuously between deployments so the troops will be ready when needed, Edwards says. But first responders in the county, especially police, have jobs that make it hard to find the time to train.

"We have to staff the streets," said Sgt. Kurt Svardal of the Gilroy Police Department, which has just 60 sworn officers. "We have to have people available to respond to emergencies 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

Finding time to train is even more frustrating when the new basic courses essentially repeat classes most officers have taken. But so far, neither the state nor federal government has agreed that the earlier classes meet their requirements, with some exceptions.

The outline of the latest federal awareness course, known as AWR-160 in the government's 118-page college catalog-like listing of homeland security classes, serves as a grim primer on modern terrorism.

What officers learn Makeup of explosive devices, symptoms of mustard gas
In it, first responders are taught to recognize the lingering effects of radiation from a nuclear weapon or a dirty bomb. They learn the symptoms of exposure to chemical agents like mustard gas, which causes horrific blistering within hours, and sarin, a deadly nerve gas that can kill in minutes.

They are taught about insidious biological agents. And they learn about improvised explosive devices, like the bombs used in the streets of Iraq or on London's transit system.

The state has a separate class, created by the commission on state Police Officers Standards and Training, which all law enforcement officers must complete.

But delays in setting the curriculum for these classes -- and in determining whether those who take the state course can be exempt from the federal course covering the same information -- pushed back the start of training efforts.

"You have to understand that the training requirements were changing weekly," Foster said. The public, he said, would be right to "throw up their hands and say, `This is crazy. Why can't the government get it figured out and do it right.' It's not because people aren't trying."

"It was a moving target," agreed Santa Clara County Fire Chief Ben Lopes, who chairs the five-member committee that distributes the county's federal funding.

The awareness training is just the beginning, said San Francisco police officer Matt Krimsky, who taught a basic course to sheriff's deputies in 2002. Boiling down what these courses teach, he explained: "If you find a suspicious package, you don't walk up and kick it."

Some first responders in the county -- exact numbers haven't been compiled -- have already had more practical "performance" training, including the entire Palo Alto police force. But most are either members of specialized units like bomb squads and emergency response (SWAT) teams, or are expected to return and train their colleagues.

San Jose police officer Alan Soroka took a weeklong "train the trainer" course last year at a former military chemical weapons proving ground in Alabama. There, he and others practiced donning protective suits and gas masks to protect themselves from deadly chemical agents used in a training exercise.

To test their skills, Soroka and the others worked as a team in what looked like a high school gymnasium where the air was contaminated with an actual chemical agent. The objective was to secure the area and then evacuate and decontaminate realistic looking mannequins, stand-ins for dead and injured first responders and other victims of the simulated attack.

"Talk about a confidence-builder," Soroka said of his experience working in a room filled with poison gas. "This definitely builds confidence."

Over the past 10 years, starting soon after the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building that killed 168, San Jose police officers have averaged more than 10 hours a year in anti-terrorism or related training, said Lt. Guy Bernardo, who coordinates police training under the city's homeland security grant.

Struggling with rules Most personnel have already had required training

Bernardo's department, like others in the county, has struggled to find the best way to satisfy the new federal and state requirements, believing that virtually the entire force of more than 1,300 sworn officers has already had that same essential training.

After several months of delay, San Jose decided to offer a shorter version of the state-required class followed by a test designed to demonstrate that officers also know the material included in the federal course.

"We're slaves to two masters here and unfortunately we have to be sure we cover all the bases," Bernardo said.

The officers, meanwhile, are eager to move on to more practical courses. "They're rattling the cage," he said. "They want to go out and get some training so they'll be better prepared on the street."

Meanwhile, a number of sheriff's deputies, often on their own initiative, have already enrolled in specialized advanced classes, from a quick one-hour class on chemical agents to a 36-hour series on combating terrorism.

Deputy sheriff Michael Jacobs, a member of the department's emergency response team, spent five days in July at the vacant Hewlett-Packard site in Mountain View in classes that included a mix of lectures and hands-on use of portable detection equipment. The aim was to learn how to quickly locate and identify a weapon of mass destruction and rescue victims without becoming a victim.

So far, few first responders have had such advanced training. That's partly because it can take up to nine months to schedule the national experts who fly in to teach such courses, says sheriff's training specialist Linda Mirch. And in some cases it's been a struggle to find appropriate classes.

Almost none of the $356,000 set aside last year to train public health and hospital workers has been spent. The reason, said Dr. Marty Fenstersheib, is that it's hard to find courses that are tailored to fit their needs.

"We even said to the feds, `We don't need more equipment without the ability to train for it and plan for it,' " said Fenstersheib, who's the county public health officer and on the committee that doles out homeland security money. "We've really had problems getting the right courses to the right people."

But the county committee has continued to favor equipment over training.

In March, the committee met to spend this year's $4 million in homeland security money. The committee quickly approved a request for $800,000 to provide additional training to first responders, making it one of its highest priorities. But later, while trying to make room for more equipment, it slashed $142,720 from that training request -- an 18 percent cut.

"I didn't think it was going to impact the speed with which our folks get trained," said Santa Clara's Lodge, who is on the committee.

Even later, after learning that there was unspent money from earlier grants, the committee didn't consider restoring the training cuts. Instead, they spent most of it on equipment, including: $128,000 for the sheriff's backup communications center, $65,000 for a cache of prescription drugs, $54,042 for hospital decontamination equipment and $10,000 for two portable receivers that can pick up helicopter signals.

County fire's Lopes says the committee has little time to devote to making these decisions and often does so on tight deadlines. Admits Lopes: "It is very difficult to know if we are putting the money in the right things."

(c) 2005 San Jose Mercury News