Anti-Terrorist Preparations Lag as Training Becomes Bureaucracy

Officers, responders call homeland security training requirements a moving target

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.