Fire and rescue groups seek anti-terrorism training

October 02, 1997


Staff Writer

Here's a scenario: Firefighters and paramedics rush to a building that has exploded. They begin to administer aid when a second bomb ignites.

It's not fiction. Officials who responded to an explosion at an Atlanta area abortion clinic in January faced that very situation. Six were injured by the second blast.

That and an increasing number of domestic acts of terrorism have prompted the federal government to make anti-terrorism training a priority. Washington County fire and rescue officials are racing to grasp an expanding pool of money.


"This area could be susceptible to terrorist attacks. I hope it never happens, but you never know," said Robert P. Cumberland Jr., administrative planner of the Washington County Volunteer Fire & Rescue Association.

Cumberland said the association has applied for a grant to cover the cost of classes for the men and women who would be the first to respond to a terrorist attack. Cumberland predicted that up to 90 percent of the county's fire and rescue companies would participate.

The sum is relatively small - $1,000 - but Cumberland said it is a trend likely to grow over the next decade.

Washington County may not leap to the top of anyone's top 10 hit lists, but Cumberland said interstates 70 and 81, the county's regional airport and its proximity to Baltimore, Washington, Fort Ritchie and Camp David make it a possible target.

The Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute, which trains firefighters from all over the state, would provide the training. Russell Strickland, assistant director for field programs, said the 12-hour course likely will begin in November.

The material is so new, however, that the institute first must train more instructors, Strickland said. The courses, which are broken into three four-hour blocks, will be paid for from a pool of $50,000 provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Strickland said the course stresses the inherent differences between terrorist attacks and normal fires and rescues. Pointing to the second bomb at the Atlanta abortion clinic bombing, he said fire and rescue personnel must be aware of the dangers they face.

"That immediately is not a normal situation. It's a very unstable situation," he said. "It's a whole different mentality."

Events like the Oklahoma City bombing and the World Trade Center blast prompted officials to consider terrorism training, Cumberland said. Before that, few even considered domestic terrorism a threat, he said.

About five years ago, he said, hazardous materials training was the hot issue. He said it is quickly becoming terrorism training.

Gregory Socks, coordinator of Washington County's hazardous materials team, said every firefighter should at least have a basic awareness of the risks posed by terrorism. As a lieutenant in the Montgomery County fire department, Socks is one of the few Washington County officials who have any anti-terrorism training.

Fire and rescue workers are accustomed to being "the knight in shining armor. We're actually becoming the enemy" to terrorists, he said.

Doug DeHaven, deputy chief of the Halfway Volunteer Fire Co., predicted terrorism training will one day become a routine part of training for firefighters.

"It's a new area. Add that to the list of things we have to have," he said.

DeHaven said the potential for crisis always lurks. He pointed to last month's Battle of Antietam re-enactment, for which Halfway was the lead fire and rescue company.

"Any time you put large groups of people together, you have the potential to become a target," he said.

Strickland said terrorism training is a key effort flowing from a number of federal agencies.

In addition to firefighters and medics, he said the FBI has money to train local law enforcement agencies and the U.S. Public Health Service is setting up medical strike teams to respond to chemical or biological attacks. A unit in Baltimore will form in the near future, he said.

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