Surprise Packages; Post-9/11, Hazmat Crews Assume Worst

Article excerpt

Byline: Daniel Taylor, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Emergency crews arriving at 14th Street and New York Avenue Northwest on a recent afternoon blocked motorists attempting to squeeze through the busy intersection and diverted pedestrians who scanned the block, then the skyline, for a robbery, a heart-attack victim or even a suicide attempt from a midrise building.

But this time, police and fire officials were moving toward a backpack left in front of a bank - another suspicious package in an almost daily stream that proves harmless yet requires street closures, a dozen emergency workers and a lights-and-sirens response.

More than five years after anthrax killed two D.C. postal workers and three others nationwide, the balance between an appropriate response and an overreaction remains elusive.

For example, Boston officials in January reportedly spent $2 million responding to what appeared to be a coordinated terrorist threat, only to find that 38 blinking devices left throughout the city were part of an electronic advertising campaign for a cable-television cartoon series.

The Metropolitan Police Department responded to 6,520 calls about suspicious packages between the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the end of 2006, pulling emergency resources off the street on the chance that one call will be a legitimate threat. Police took reports on 1,669 of the calls. In the other cases, the misplaced packages were likely retrieved before police arrived.

The department last year responded to 943 calls and substantiated 166. That total is comparable to the totals in the years since 2001, but four times more than the 42 substantiated incidents that police investigated in 2000, the last full year before the terrorist attacks.

As recently as Thursday, Secret Service agents discovered a suspicious package on the White House grounds near the fence along Pennsylvania Avenue. Authorities closed Lafayette Park and the pedestrian mall in front of the White House for almost two hours before they dismissed the package as harmless.

Joseph Persichini Jr., assistant director in charge of the FBI's Washington field office, says the level of response is not likely to change.

"That vigilance," he said. "That's a fixed cost."

First responders

The FBI's National Capital Response Squad is the clearinghouse for calls about suspicious packages, powders, liquids or devices. The squad is notified about every such call in the District and Northern Virginia. It's the squad's job to determine if the threat is real - and if terrorists are behind it.

Established in 1999, the 13-member team is trained in SWAT techniques, hazardous materials, crisis management, evidence collection and how to neutralize bombs and suspicious packages.

Its members rotate through Afghanistan on a regular basis to get three months of real-life training in an environment where roadside bombs and improvised explosive devices are frequent.

"They're on top of their game," said Christopher H. Combs, FBI supervisory special agent in charge of the squad. "It's part of the program."

The squad's technicians respond to an average of two suspicious-package calls and four suspicious-powder calls a week. They have responded to 62 cases of white powder, or biological, chemical or radiological weapons since Oct. 1, 2005.

"We have it down to a science," Mr. Combs said.

Local responders are typically the first on scene. They call the squad and give them what information they have, then FBI officials determine whether the threat warrants their response.

The squad will send an agent to about half the scenes, usually when they involve specific threats or something that might indicate more than just a suspicious bag or substance.

Local departments can handle the rest of the cases on their own.

"Our area is covered by some very good bomb squads," Mr. …