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Training against terror

Nevada Test Site now boot camp for rescuers

Mark Martin, Chronicle Staff Writer Monday, October 22, 2001

Mercury, Nev. -- This rugged desert landscape, scarred by decades of bomb testing during the Cold War, is poised to once again become a wartime training ground - - this time in America's new battle against terrorism.

Here, fake bad guys blow up a tanker truck full of nuclear waste or dump deadly bacteria into sewer systems. In planned scenarios, police officers, firefighters and emergency medical personnel from around the country learn how best to respond to catastrophic acts that aren't that unimaginable anymore.

The isolated Nevada Test Site -- where 300-foot-wide craters mark the spots scorched by the 928 bombs exploded here between 1951 and 1992 -- has for the past two years quietly served as a boot camp for the fire, police and medical personnel who become the front line seconds after a terrorist attack.

Now, plans to greatly expand the program are under way as federal, state and local officials realize their defenses are woefully underfunded and undertrained.

"The Cold War is over, but we now have a new war to unfortunately deal with.

That's why we're here," said Jim Barrett, a senior adviser at the test site who manages anti-terrorism programs.

Even in the Bay Area, where natural disasters like the Loma Prieta earthquake and the Oakland hills fire prompted the state and local governments to beef up their emergency preparedness programs, officials admit they need more help in readying for an assault on a target like the Golden Gate Bridge or an oil refinery.

Those terrifying scenarios are dissected every day on U.S. Department of Energy land in Nevada through a course with an inauspicious name: Weapons of Mass Destruction Terrorism Response Domestic Preparedness Program.

Last week two armed terrorists seized control of a nuclear power plant, taking hostages. As a police sniper gunned down one of the perpetrators, a SWAT team blew open a door to the plant and stormed the building.

Just as the second terrorist was captured and the hostages were secured, a bomb went off, sending smoke spewing from the building and raising concerns that radiation was spilling into the air. A hazardous materials team -- dressed in fully insulated moon suits -- responded with inflatable decontamination showers.

Program trainers like to throw new problems into the mix as situations unfold, said James Sudderth, a former member of the U.S. Army's elite Delta Force who now helps run the program.

"We want to drive the stress level up here, so that they're prepared to work under intense pressure when it's real," he said.

Graduates of the program say the emphasis on realism is crucial.

"Every 15 to 20 minutes something new happened, and we had to handle the news media. It was as realistic as you could get," said Bob Navarro, chief of special operations for the San Francisco Fire Department, who attended the program earlier this year.

About 90 minutes northwest of Las Vegas, the Nevada Test Site is 1,350 square miles of parched earth.

The remains of the U.S. military's nuclear testing program are intermixed with low-growing creosote brush and jagged mountain ranges. Bits and pieces of debris from bombs dropped by air or detonated underground can be spotted like seashells on a beach.

About 1,500 people representing fire department hazardous materials teams, police bomb squad units and emergency services managers have come here for training in the past two years.

The program's teachers know what they're talking about: Along with Sudderth,

they're ex-Navy Seals and military officers, as well as the former Las Vegas fire chief and a longtime captain with the New York Police Department. Also on staff is a Russian doctor who worked in Chernobyl after the nuclear meltdown there.

Students work with high-tech gizmos that can detect radiation levels or determine whether a substance is pepper spray or sarin gas.

Local first responders aren't the only ones who have visited the test site for training.

In one frighteningly prescient project developed earlier this year, teachers here built a simulated anthrax lab and challenged federal anti- terrorism officers to sleuth around the site, determine what was being produced inside and disable the operation.

"These are scenarios that we've been thinking about for years," said John Spahn, who oversees the hazardous materials program. "Now they're coming true."

That reality is likely to launch a once obscure program into the spotlight.

In the weeks after the worst terrorist attack in the country's history, Nevada Sen. Harry Reid has proposed creating the National Center for Counterterrorism here. Reid, a Democrat, has talked with the Bush administration about increasing funding at the site from $7 million annually to more than $60 million.

Reid has pitched his plan directly to U.S. Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham, whose department oversees the site.

"What we envision is a Top Gun for first responders," said Reid spokesman Nathan Naylor, referring to the U.S. Navy's famed school for fighter pilots.

San Francisco has benefited from some federal funds aimed at preparing cities for terrorism, and the city does have a terrorism task force that includes the fire department's hazardous materials team, the police department's bomb squad and public health toxicology officials. The task force has developed specific strategies for what to do if likely targets are struck.

But the fire department's Navarro, who heads the task force, said more was needed.

"We're 98 percent planned, 75 percent trained and about 35 percent equipped, " he said, noting a giant wish list of supplies he'd like to have, including more portable decontamination showers and better communications systems.

Other Bay Area emergency services managers echoed Navarro, saying they had some plans for terrorist attacks, some equipment and some training, but not enough.

For that, a Nevada desert that took a beating for its country during the Cold War may find a bigger use again.

-- Martin Thompson (, October 22, 2001

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