They're training for doomsday, preparing for a different and even deadlier kind terrorism than we've ever seen before on American soil — the worst-case scenario: a chemical, biological or even nuclear attack.
Specialized hazardous materials units are carrying out drills in New York, Miami, Seattle, and Chicago. But the government warns it could happen anywhere, anytime.
It's certainly an impressive message of readiness in the face of fear and panic. The HAZMAT units are equipped with state-of-the-art gear to respond to an attack. This is how prepared the government wants us to think we are, but there's one big problem.
First Responders as Vulnerable as Citizens
The HAZMAT crews won't be the first responders in the event of an attack — your local firefighters and police officers will, according to Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Firefighters.
This troubles Schaitberger, who said our local fire and police crews are going to be in trouble if they're facing an incident involving weapons of mass destruction. "They are likely going to be the victims just as much as the citizens that they're there to serve," he said.
Schaitberger says the first responders — the frontline firefighters, police and emergency medical technicians — simply do not have the equipment they need to protect themselves — much less you — from weapons of mass destruction.
State of Disarray, Not State-of-the-Art
Firefighter Larry Jenkins is typical. He will be first on the scene of a terrorist attack in Fairfax, Va. Jenkins is only equipped with an ordinary firefighter's suit and mask, which will protect him from smoke and not much else. It won't protect him from ricin or anthrax or sarin gas.
"The gear we have is meant for firefighting. It's not meant for weapons of mass destruction," Jenkins said.
In the face of weapons of mass destruction, experts say, Jenkins and his fellow firefighters need Level-A state-of-the-art personal protection suits. These suits cover every inch of skin and filter out gases and other deadly agents.
20/20 took a look at how well first responders across the country were equipped, and found not state-of-the-art, but a state of disarray. Many had little or no protection at all — no gas masks, no chemical suits, nothing.
The standard protection for an EMS worker, for example, amounts to boot covers, rubber gloves, a shower cap and goggles. You could buy this stuff yourself at a local hardware or drugstore.
Shocked? Don Walsh, who represents emergency medical technicians and paramedics on a national terrorism task force, isn't. Walsh says almost two years after 9/11 and the anthrax attacks that followed, they also don't have the gear.
And the crisis for police departments is the same. A Chicago police sergeant showed us what his department was ordered to use in the face of a chemical or biological attack — latex gloves.
The sergeant didn't want his identity revealed. He was afraid he'd be fired for showing us their gear.
Waiting on the Feds
Even in a big city like Los Angeles, a known target for al Qaeda, with a police force of 9,000, most of the force has little to no protective gear.
"This is a brave new world. This equipment is needed and it is needed yesterday," said John Miller, a former anchor at 20/20, who is now the chief of the LAPD's counterterrorism bureau.
So, what's the delay? Miller said responsibility lies at the federal level. "The city of Los Angeles, like most other cities in this country, relied on the assertion of the federal government that this money was coming right away. 'Right away' turned into six months, six months turned into a year. A year turned into 18 months," Miller said.
The Department of Homeland Security says that almost $4 billion have been made available to state and local responders. While politicians quibble, the threat level has risen to code orange, the second-highest level, four times since 9/11. But most local fire and police departments say they still haven't seen a dime.
Who's to blame?
Congressman Christopher Cox, R-Calif., heads up the homeland security committee. Cox wouldn't accept responsibility for the current plight of first responders. He did, however, admit they are not the first priority. Instead, he said the priority should be to prevent another terrorist attack and that equipping state and local governments to respond to such an attack should be a distant second.
"The truth is that intelligence is relatively less expensive, and you might say more cost-effective for that reason," Cox said.
Cox's response angered Schaitberger, who said, "I'd love to take Chris Cox and … let him roll into an incident that these firefighters and every firefighter in this nation is going to respond to, and then let him decide at that moment what is important."
Congress Protects Itself
Of course, congress won't be rolling out with first responders anytime soon. But on Capitol Hill, they're protected. Congress spent $5 million to buy 25,000 "escape hoods" for Cox, his staff, and everyone else on Capitol Hill.
So Congress members and their staff don't mind spending money on themselves, while they've left big cities vulnerable. That means the people on the front lines might have a harder time rescuing you.
No Money, No Standardized Equipment
And when smaller cities and towns manage to scrape together the funds to buy equipment, what they can buy might be worse than nothing at all.
Mario Martinez, who trains police officers across the country in how to protect themselves against the most lethal biological or chemical agent, says for many departments the bottom line is money, not safety.
Martinez said most departments will make decisions based on the lowest bid. "It boils down to how much it is gonna cost and what I can get for my dollar," he said.
But what they often get for their dollar is equipment that is obsolete, defective or, at best, intended for industrial use. And first responders won't know whether the equipment really works until they're in a situation where they need it.
Without a central clearinghouse to tell local authorities what equipment works in which scenarios, many departments get their gear from ads, trade fairs, and the Internet. Some of it is used. Martinez said the military will sometimes issue out some equipment that no longer meets the need of the military and they just get rid of it.
Martinez showed us a mask, recently issued to a police officer in Texas. The chemical respirator on the mask expired in April 1989, but the officer was issued the mask in the year 2003.
Martinez said, "He might as well just throw it in the trash."
Until the money comes through, America's first responders are left vulnerable to the next terrorist attack with pre-9/11 gear and pre-9/11 fixes.
"It happened in 1993," Martinez said, referring to the first attack on New York's World Trade Center, "and then it happened in the same place in the year 2001. You would've thought in 1993 somebody would've said, 'hey, let's make sure this doesn't happen again.' And yet we let it happen again, because of complacency."
Complacency that leaves first responders wondering what will come next: a chemical, biological or radiological attack — or the equipment they need to fight it.