Anti-Terrorist Preparations Lag as Training Becomes Bureaucracy

Officers, responders call homeland security training requirements a moving target

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