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.