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Task force: U.S. ‘dangerously unprepared’ for attacks | (KRT) Only 10 percent of the nation's fire departments could respond adequately to a building collapse. Police officers lack the essential biohazard gear they would need to survive a chemical, biological or nuclear attack. State public health labs are poorly equipped; for instance, only two have technology to test for cyanide.

Those are some of the findings scheduled to be made public Monday by a blue-ribbon panel convened by the Council on Foreign Relations, a respected think tank.

The report concludes that despite the intensive homeland security efforts already undertaken, the nation's first responders remain significantly underfunded and "dangerously unprepared" for terrorist attacks.

The Department of Homeland Security took exception to the findings.

A department official said critics could just as easily have focused on what has been accomplished in the less than two years since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"This country is much better prepared not only to respond but to prevent a terrorist attack than we were a short 20 months ago on Sept. 11," said Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the Homeland Security Department. "We have come a long way in raising our protective measures, reducing our vulnerabilities and increasing the capabilities of our first responders."

The panel, headed by former Sen. Warren Rudman, R-N.H., also included former Secretary of State George Schulz, National Football League Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, Nobel laureates and retired military leaders. It estimated that the nation should, over the next five years, spend nearly $100 billion more than current projections on domestic preparedness.

"The U.S. has not reached a sufficient national level of emergency preparedness and remains dangerously ill-prepared to handle a catastrophic attack on American soil, particularly involving chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear agent or coordinated high-impact conventional means," the report said.

With help from watchdog groups that monitor the federal budget, the report's authors estimated that federal, state and local spending on domestic emergency preparedness over the next five years would range from $53 billion to $103 billion. But even the maximum still is $98.4 billion shy of what they concluded the true need is.

The panel, called the Independent Task Force on Emergency Responders, sought to avoid appearing to criticize the Bush administration. It said it did not "seek to apportion blame about what has not been done or not done quickly enough," but to point out how much was left undone.

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Despite that, the report makes clear that panel members felt there was blame to go around, saying that Congress had "dangerously delayed" appropriating funds to emergency responders and that states had not gotten the money to local officials quickly enough.

Only the first responders, among the most heroic actors on Sept. 11, seemed to escape criticism.

"Like the police and fire professionals who entered the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, emergency responders will respond to crises with whatever resources they have," the report said.

"The U.S. has both a responsibility and a critical need to provide them with the equipment, training and other necessary resources to do their jobs safely and effectively."

As 21 months have passed since the worst terrorist attacks in modern U.S. history, front-line responders have gotten increasingly vocal about lacking equipment.

At a recent congressional forum held by House Democrats, Jerry Speziale, sheriff of Passaic County, N.J., said, "We still don't have adequate gas masks or things that our front-line defenders need.

"Law enforcement is probably the most under-provided in equipment to face these kinds of situations," he said. "Here at home all we give them is the shirts that they wear and the badge. Can you imagine . . . the scene if we send our officers to the scene (of a terrorist attack) and we see them walking around coughing and all of a sudden bodies starting to drop?"

At the same forum, Doug Duncan, executive of Montgomery County, Md., said the county, on its own initiative, provided a 10-day supply of antibiotics to each police officer and firefighter.

The move was meant to provide peace of mind in the event of an attack with a biological agent such as anthrax.

"Our police officers and firefighters are human like the rest of us," Duncan said. "They get nervous, they get scared. And if they don't have the training and equipment, they're not going to respond the way we need them to."

The report criticized the current state of affairs not only because, in the panel's view, there was not enough money being directed to homeland security. It had a more fundamental criticism: the lack of a national emergency preparedness standard that city, county and state officials could measure against.

It called that deficit a "public policy crisis," because it would be impossible to know, without such a standard, precisely what human and monetary resources were needed.

"National capability standards would, for example, determine the minimum number of people that cities of a certain size should be able to decontaminate, inoculate, quarantine or treat after a chemical, nuclear, biological or radiological attack," the report said.

"Local jurisdictions would then be allowed flexibility in reaching those levels over a fixed period of time," it said. "Standards will make it possible to efficiently use federal funding to meet identified needs and measure preparedness levels on a national scale."

But the report's authors acknowledged that the threat of another terrorist attack in United States was so real that the nation could not wait to act until it was sure about what preparations were needed where.

They suggested an approach that in some respects resembles the current situation: that as officials work to create national standards they also make their "most educated guess based on incomplete information" about which gaps to close first.

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© 2003, Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services