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Volume 31, Issue 1

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Over the past six years, an increased magnitude and severity of the threat of terrorist attacks have occurred worldwide. Recent attacks include:

  • 1993 - The New York City World Trade Center bombing killed six people and injured more than 1,000 others (it has now been revealed that cyanide gas was part of the plan);
  • 1995 - AUM Shinrikyo releases Sarin gas in the Tokyo subway killed ten people and injured more than 5,000 others;
  • 1995 - Oklahoma City bombing was the largest vehicle bomb attack in the United States;
  • 1998 - Anthrax scare in Las Vegas, Nevada; and
  • 1998 - Simultaneous attacks on African embassies reveal vast transnational terrorist network.
During the 1991 Persian Gulf conflict, the threat posed by Iraq by using biological and chemical weapons caused great concern within the United States and with armed forces worldwide. Chem-Bio weapons are attractive due to their extreme toxicity and the political impact they would have if used. In addition to their use for military purposes, they have also piqued the interest of terrorist and fringe groups. Terrorists and the armed forces are interested in these weapons for similar reasons: these weapons are ' relative to many conventional and nuclear weapons ' inexpensive to make from easily acquired materials. The instructions to manufacture these weapons are readily available in underground publications and on the Internet.

With the recent volatile global political atmosphere, the accessibility and willingness to use these types of destructive agents has increased. These incidents indicate a transition in the use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), typically used in war, to the use of such weapons in a terrorist act against unprotected civilians.

Densely populated areas, including urban centers and entertainment complexes such as stadiums and arenas, are attractive targets for terrorists. Additionally, large-scale industrial accidents can and will continue to happen near major population centers. Biological and chemical agents can be dispersed in the air we breathe, the water we drink, or on surfaces we physically contact. These incidents raise the question of preparedness of state and local Emergency Management Teams and Fire Departments. How can the EMS professionals plan and be prepared for an event everyone hopes will never happen? Is there a proactive approach to preparedness of terrorist attacks?

There are steps leaders can take to protect their communities against this horrific threat. It is imperative that police are aware of the potential problems that these incidents can pose and are aware of "indicators" that may surface during crisis, the attack itself, or afterwards at a crime scene or noted during an investigation.

In most cases there are observable signatures of a chemical agent release. First responders can be equipped with real time chemical detectors that can identify chemical agents. There are no characteristic signatures for the release of biological agents as they are usually colorless and odorless. However, after assessment of a situation reveals the presence of chemical and/or biological agents, immediate action needs to occur to protect those people in danger.

Every major city worldwide is a potential target for an attack. Terrorists aim to affect as many people as possible, and to garner as much attention as possible, in order to achieve their desired results.

One of the most probable sites of a terrorist attack is the inside of a heavily populated building. Government office buildings, national landmarks, corporate offices, convention centers and public arenas offer the terrorist maximum impact by providing containment, which increases the lethality of the agent in a confined space. Training and planning for such situations is key.

Training must occur at all levels to recognize weapons of mass destruction attacks and to respond appropriately and quickly. Prudent planners simulate conditions of an attack that occur inside of a building and train personnel how to respond quickly. There are tools to help facilitate quick and accurate decision-making by emergency responders in life threatening situations.

PLG, Inc. (a subsidiary of EQE International, Inc.), has developed one of these technology tools called MIDAS-AT (Meteorological Information and Dispersion Assessment System Anti-Terrorism). PLG, Inc. is comprised of experts in risk assessment and management, many of whom have assisted in the development of this tool. MIDAS-AT has a unique model designed specifically for attacks or accidents that occur inside buildings. It allows the user to quickly describe a building, floors on that building, and rooms on each floor at the location of a terrorist device or attack. It then provides hazard prediction within the room, adjacent rooms, floors and the building itself. In a preparation mode, important building blueprints can be created in advance and placed in MIDAS-AT's database for use during an emergency or during training. It is important that the tool used to train Emergency Response personnel also be used in an actual emergency. This makes the tool cost-effective and decreases the potential for error in an emergency situation.

Even during an inside building release, toxic agents will leak to the outside air. The outdoor environment now spreads the danger to more of the city. The wind direction and speed play roles in how fast or slow the agents will spread in any given area; tall buildings and the layout of the area ' urban development, hilly terrain, etc.' will also affect the directional flow of agents. MIDAS-AT's Urban Terrain model can also predict where the safe havens are located and identify the "hot zone." Preparedness for this type of situation requires consistent real time updates of the weather patterns during the course of the incident. The more available information communicated to the emergency teams and most realistic accounting for the type of terrain, the better the chances Emergency Response personnel will have to save as many lives as possible.

The threat of WMD terrorist attacks is a reality in today's society; therefore, so must be the ability to prepare and combat these attacks. Ultimate responsibility for protecting and preserving human life is up to the Emergency Response personnel. Arming these teams with information and technology to facilitate effective decision-making is the responsibility of every community. A sure way to save unprotected citizens from cruel acts of harm is through warning and reporting technology. Information Technology has become an essential part of our everyday life. In terms of preparedness for terrorist attacks, it may be the tool that saves our lives.

Randy Ridley, is the Director of Federal Programs for PLG Inc., responsible for leading PLG's efforts with the Federal and State and Local Government markets, particularly in the area of anti-terrorism preparedness. He has over 19 years of experience in national security programs, arms control research and development, and Navy service experience.