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Ottawa Citizen

Despite 3 years' preparation, Ottawa remains vulnerable

David Stonehouse The Ottawa Citizen

Emergency authorities in Ottawa have been "quietly" training crews and preparing contingency plans to deal with a biological, nuclear or chemical attack against the city.

"We have been meeting as a committee quietly to gear up for preparedness for this kind of issue," says Dr. Justin Maloney, the medical director for Ottawa's paramedic program and a member of the committee. "We felt ... that we were not as well-prepared as we needed to be."

For nearly three years, the National Capital Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Resource Team has been mapping out how to respond to a strike.

"The wakeup call for all of us was the sarin gas attack in Tokyo in 1995," Dr. Maloney told the Citizen yesterday. "The level of preparedness there was even greater than ours would be if we were faced with that at the time. We all thought, 'Holy crow! What if ... ?' "

A sarin gas attack in a Tokyo subway by a doomsday cult nearly six years ago killed 12 people and injured thousands.

The emergency planning under way in Ottawa helped authorities deal with yesterday's incident, Dr. Maloney said. Although officials connected with the effort were reluctant to discuss exact details, they said the planning has helped.

Some firefighters and police officers have gone through live biological agent training exercises to help prepare them for real calls.

"We have had a couple of suspicious package calls together," said Ottawa Fire department Capt. John Gagnon, who is co-chair for the effort. "We've got a pretty good command structure going and a workable team."

Ottawa Police Insp. Sue O'Sullivan, the other co-chair, said the city is a potential target as the nation's capital and it has to be prepared.

The group meets about once a month at the fire station on Industrial Avenue and includes fire, police and ambulance officials along with doctors and public health officials. RCMP representatives also attend.

"Planning for something like this is going to save lives. It is also going to prevent over-reaction," Dr. Maloney said.

After the Tokyo attack, emergency crews in the city began examining what their responses would be to a similar strike. But it was not until some time later that the agencies began meeting to work out their plans together.

The group has been examining how communities in the U.S. have been preparing for possible attacks. The U.S. has given money to 120 cities to help them prepare for strikes.

In a speech in Washington three weeks ago, then-Secretary of Defence William Cohen argued the threat is very real.

"This is not some science fiction that we are simply concocting in order to scare people," Mr. Cohen said. "I have tried to raise the level of consciousness about this threat. I did so years ago in dealing with (Iraqi leader) Saddam Hussein.

"When I went on television I held up a ... five-pound bag of sugar, and I said, 'Pretend for the moment this is anthrax. This five-pound bag of anthrax, if released, with proper wind conditions, over a city the size of Washington, will kill roughly 70 per cent of the population.' There are tons of anthrax in existence."

-- Rachel Gibson (, February 01, 2001

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