Preparedness for terrorism


Howard County seems an unlikely target for terrorists. There are no renowned national treasures and nothing that offers the symbolism of the Pentagon or the World Trade Center.

But Howard is less than 35 miles from Washington, and the FBI inspected the Valencia and Pin-Del motels on U.S. 1 in the county because they believed two suspected Sept. 11 hijackers stayed there. And in October and November, county residents flooded emergency lines with anthrax scares.

"[Sept. 11 and its aftermath] showed that anything is possible," said Joseph Herr, chief of the Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services.

While Howard County has not changed much on the surface, county officials say their jobs have changed in important ways since Sept. 11.

They have been updating emergency procedures, buying new equipment and training employees to deal with terrorist threats. The county also has received grants from the state and federal governments to purchase materials and inspect drinking water sites.

"We're trying to do everything we can to prepare ... but it's a big task," said Dr. Penny E. Borenstein, director of the Howard County Health Department.

County officials point to the anthrax scares of October and November, when they dealt with more than 450 anthrax reports (all false) as a turning point that led to a reshaping of the county's emergency preparedness effort.

The mad rush of dealing with the anthrax scare opened their eyes to a new reality, they say.

In the past, they believed that responding to chemical or biological attacks would be mainly the responsibility of the federal government. "[The anthrax] attacks taught us all terrorism is local," said Maj. Jeffery Spaulding of the Howard County Police Department. "When people get scared, they're going to call 911 and we're going to have to respond."

Daily meetings

During the height of the anthrax reports, fire, police and county employees met daily to assess needs and map strategy. Officials said they emerged from the episode with a better idea of how to work together to handle bioterrorism and other threats to public health.

Instead of sending employees from a single unit, the county will send firefighters, police officers and Health Department employees to assess each threat, determine whether it is credible and establish a perimeter before dealing with the reported material.

"The Health Department was not a partner we dealt with a lot. ... But communication got a lot better," said Spaulding.

Because of the anthrax scares, the county has hired or reassigned three employees to help handle future terrorist situations, including an added public information officer, nursing coordinator and epidemiologist, who keeps track of and investigates diseases in the county.

Howard officials also have begun buying new equipment to combat bioterrorism. Thanks to a Justice Department grant in April, county police, fire and health workers have ordered more than 800 specialized suits, more than 400 gas masks and 600 pairs of specialized boots.

The county received another U.S. Justice Department grant of $236,000 last month. Officials have not decided what to buy with that money.

$115,000 grant

Meanwhile, Howard has been awarded a $115,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to hire a consulting group to check the county's 40 drinking water facilities. That project is expected to be approved by the County Council this month.

As public officials work to increase security, the fears raised by Sept. 11 and the anthrax scares appear to be fading for many county residents.

Ellicott City resident Diane Hinds received an envelope containing white powder and a letter reading: "Congratulations, you have been selected for death by anthrax" in mid-October. The FBI said that the letter and powder were a hoax, but Hinds said she was "pretty freaked out for a while."

But these days, Hinds said the threats of terrorism and anthrax rarely cross her mind.

"Of course, you realize we're all more vulnerable. ... But it's not something I spend too much time thinking about anymore," she said.

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