Anti-terrorism Session in Cedar Rapids, IA

3/24/1999 12:00 AM

The powder that spilled out of the envelopes was ordinary cocoa, Doug Smith assured the two dozen people who'd just opened them. But what if it wasn't?

The exercise was "to get you to see things as they could be," said Smith, a staff member with the National Emergency Response and Rescue Training Center (NERRTC).

The center, based at Texas A&M University, has developed a program designed to help police and emergency agencies deal with terrorism. After two trials in Texas, the center is taking the program on the road, with Cedar Rapids as the first stop.

"We should leave the city of Cedar Rapids with a process it can use to conduct a threat assessment," said Bill May, the center's director of operations and training. "Some people mistake this as the cavalry coming in and we take an assessment of Cedar Rapids," he said. "To be really effective, the assessment has to be in the hands of the owner."

Kevin Sterenchuk, Cedar Rapids Fire Department, said he hopes to devise an additional chapter to the city's existing emergency plan, which covers responses to natural disasters and industrial accidents. The project will review threats to specific potential targets, major office buildings, communications facilities and power plants, for example, and will make the city eligible for federal grants under new anti-terrorism programs.

Lee Peddicord, NERRTC director, praised Sterenchuk's initiative in calling the center. "The kinds of (threats) we're facing have changed so drastically," Peddicord said. "We were so caught up in the Cold War and the idea of a superpower adversary."

The spread of foreign and domestic terrorist movements, and the existence of nations that have adopted terrorism as a matter of policy, "puts communities like Cedar Rapids and virtually every other city in a position to be prepared to respond."

Smith's chocolate-powder exercise was drawn on a series of recent hoaxes. Envelopes containing an unknown substance are mailed to abortion clinics, post offices and courthouses, accompanied by notes claiming anthrax contamination. So far, none of the incidents has been genuine.

Smith wants ambulance personnel and firefighters to adopt a new mind-set when responding to what in most cases are routine emergencies.

"When your responders go to an event, one of their first thoughts should be, 'Could this be something else?' " he said.

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