Surprise Packages; Post-9/11, Hazmat Crews Assume Worst
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."
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. Combs said. "They don't need the FBI on every call."
If the call warrants further investigation, the squad manages the scene.
D.C. fire department spokesman Alan Etter said the agency's hazardous-materials team last year responded to 41 suspicious-substance calls, 11 of which were in or near federal facilities. The department also responded to 84 suspicious-package calls, 49 of which were in or near federal facilities.
Authorities can now clear such calls in less than a half hour, the benefit of a wide variety of high-tech gadgets procured through millions of dollars in federal grants awarded to the city after the terrorist attacks.
Many of the devices - used to detect radiation, nerve agents, biological weapons and other threats - can be operated from a safe distance, but sometimes technicians have to don hazard suits and take the devices next to the suspicious package.
D.C. firefighter Christopher Birch held up a yellow sensor a little bigger than a BlackBerry or a pager. Its science was complicated, but its usage was simple.
"If this thing goes off, we get out," he said.
Emergency workers know that it doesn't take much to make an international incident in the nation's capital.
"If someone wants to make a statement, we know this is the city where they could do it," Mr. Etter said.
Debbie Weierman, a spokeswoman for the FBI's Washington field office, said calls about suspicious items typically increase after an international incident such as the train bombings in Madrid in 2004 and when the terror level is raised.
"It's very reactionary," she said. "People become more vigilant."
In most cases, emergency workers can quickly determine if a bag or package was left behind innocently. A suspicious package last month delayed the opening of the Braddock Road Metro station for hours, as officials scrambled to find a bomb dog to investigate what turned out to be two suitcases and a backpack that had been abandoned.
"We probably handle 15 calls a week of items that were left behind," said Sgt. Tom Sharkey, bomb-squad commander for the Metro Transit Police. "Obviously, being in a mass-transit climate, we get a lot of stuff left behind."
Other times, the threat is real, even if the suspicious substance is fake.
Last November, the Lincoln Memorial was closed temporarily after authorities found a suspicious liquid near an envelope containing a note that read: "Do you know what anthrax is?" and "Do you know what a bomb is?" The liquid proved harmless.
Nevertheless, authorities treat each call the same.
"It seems like an overreaction from the public's perspective, but you don't know going in," Mr. Etter said. "You can't be complacent about these calls."
Such hoaxes were made a federal crime under the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004. They can result in penalties of five years in prison or more, depending on whether anyone is injured or killed as the result of the hoax.
In August 2005, federal prosecutors used the statute to charge Michelle Ledgister, a quality-control and assurance officer at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases of the National Institutes of Health.
Ledgister, of Bethesda, was arrested by FBI agents in a Rockville strip mall after she made a threatening phone call in July 2005 to the Broward County Property Appraiser's Office in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
The call claimed that Ledgister, who had been stripped of a homestead deduction on a property she owned and rented out in South Florida, had access to anthrax through NIH and that the appraiser's office had been infected.
She was sentenced in December 2005 to four months' time served in jail, two years of supervised release and ordered to pay the $2,233.70 cost of the hazardous-materials response.
The FBI nationally opened 513 criminal cases into reports of substances that might be chemical, radiological or biological in nature in 2001. The year before, there were 115 cases, and in 1997 there were only 22. In 2005, the number of cases had dropped to 180.
From the day of the terrorist attacks in New York and Northern Virginia to the end of 2001, the FBI responded to almost 15,000 reports of suspected anthrax.
"We were running 60 calls a day," Mr. Etter of the D.C. fire department said. "Whenever there was a white powder, people were freaking out."
Mr. Etter told a story about an elderly woman who called authorities because she walked into her kitchen one day in Northwest and saw white powder on the counter. It turned out to be sugar.
"We ran that," he said.
In another case, a man reported a suspicious white powder on the buttons of an elevator at a building, also in Northwest. Authorities found a man nearby eating a powdered donut who acknowledged using the elevator.
Substantiated threats have been few, but each made quite a stir.
In 2004, the toxin ricin was detected in the office mailroom of then-U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. A few months earlier, a letter addressed to the White House contained a small amount of ricin. No one was hurt in either incident.
The 2001 anthrax attack also infected 22 persons. Letters containing spores of the deadly disease also were mailed to major media companies.
Mr. Persichini said that the unfamiliarity with anthrax may have hampered early efforts to investigate possible incidents.
"Did we have the testing capabilities? Well, again, you're looking at a weapon that was never, ever used on the face of this earth in the law-enforcement community."
Since then the technology and the coordination have improved dramatically.
"If it's an anthrax scare, we know exactly how to handle that," he said. "We know the protocols. We have the team that gets on the conference calls immediately to look at the testing. So we've come a long way."
Washington's Union Station was partly closed and evacuated after a suspicious package was found outside the main entrance on Aug. 10. Such packages usually prove harmless but must be handled as if they were a threat. D.C. police last year responded to 943 such calls. [Photo by Astrid Riecken/The Washington Times]
No one knew what was in the package delivered to the offices of CNN on First Street Northeast in March 2005. The call was a false alarm, but the hazardous-materials response unit had to treat it as if anthrax or other dangerous agents were present. Traffic was cleared from the scene. [Photo by The Washington Times]
Traffic had to be rerouted around 17th Street and Connecticut Avenue Northwest in August 2005 as authorities answered a report of a suspicious package in a building there. [Photo by Astrid Riecken/The Washington Times]…
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Publication information: Article title: Surprise Packages; Post-9/11, Hazmat Crews Assume Worst. Contributors: Not available. Newspaper title: The Washington Times (Washington, DC). Publication date: March 11, 2007. Page number: A01. © 2009 The Washington Times LLC. COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale Group.
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