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Fairfield, Conn. gears up for disasters and terrorism

By Chris Ciarmiello
Fairfield Minuteman

Just a few years ago, training sessions on how to deal with weapons of mass destruction would have seemed oddly out of place at Sacred Heart University. Training for mass vaccination for smallpox might also have been viewed as a bit extreme at the Fairfield Health Department. And the town’'s first selectman likely would not have spent a day with regional leaders discussing bioterrorism and how to evacuate the region in the event of terrorist attacks.

Three years after terrorists killed over 3,000 people in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, however, such measures have become a part of life for local government and public safety officials. Yesterday, the Health Department did indeed conduct a training program for medical volunteers who signed up to assist in the event of a mass smallpox vaccination effort, and Sacred Heart is expecting everyone from campus safety personnel to power plant workers to government officials to attend its WMD training course next month.

“Nobody wants to think about these things,” First Selectman Kenneth Flatto said Tuesday. “But I think everybody has a responsibility to do everything we can to show [we are] as prepared as possible.”

Last month, Flatto attended a one-day regional emergency preparedness conference in West Haven with about 15 other chief elected officials. Among the concerns expressed were what might happen if an evacuation was necessary, but Interstate 95 was unusable, he said, and how town officials should release information to the media during an emergency so that the public remains informed, but does not panic.

Flatto said the community leaders also discussed a potential regional emergency response drill, which could involve responding to a mock accident choreographed by federal homeland security teams. “The regional communication between communities has stepped up to a whole new level,” he said. ''A whole different world’’

Before 9/11, Flatto said, his biggest disaster-related concern for the town was damage from a hurricane. Now, his concerns, and those of other town officials and departments, have been altered. Fire Chief Richard Felner said Tuesday that new equipment, more training, and more coordination have all been part of the Fire Department’'s post-Sept. 11 response.

“We have been working collectively to prepare for future terrorism attacks that were not explored prior to 9/11,” Felner said, adding that the department has provided chemical suit training to both fire and law enforcement personnel. Its Haz-Mat teams have also been able to train on new meters and technologies received through federal grants, and training levels have also been increased for command officers, Felner said.

Police Chief Joseph Sambrook said police personnel have taken new training classes, and worked closely with the Fire Department in hazardous material training. Part of the department’'s adjustments also involve using existing equipment for new purposes, he said. The department has always had gas masks, for example, but in the past they were intended for such situations as when a suspect might barricade himself inside a building, and officers had to use gas to subdue him. “You’'re dealing with a totally different thing [now],” Sambrook said. “With terrorism or biohazards, it’'s a whole different world.”

Flatto said Fairfield has one of the highest percentages in the state of police and fire personnel who are trained in dealing with hazardous materials. The town has also conducted its own terrorism-related drills in town buildings, he said.

The Health Department, meanwhile, had emergency plans on file before the Sept. 11 attacks, Health Director Arthur Leffert said. "[But] after the trade towers, all those plans were completely renovated and really got into a lot more detail because of the possibility of bioterrorism incidents,” he said.

Now, the department has an extensive plan for dealing with smallpox, and another for dealing with other bioterrorist threats. The Representative Town Meeting is slated to vote on Monday on a $83,111 allocation - all of which is fully reimbursable by federal grants that are funneled to towns through states - to help with continued planning to prepare for and respond to bioterrorism and other public health emergencies. This is the third year that the town has received such funding, which will go toward further enhancing emergency plans or conducting drills, Leffert said.

Dealing with nuclear, biological attacks

Bioterrorism will also be one of the main topics at SHU’'s Oct. 12 Weapons of Mass Destruction program, which will be held by the school’'s Department of Public Safety on SHU’'s main Park Avenue campus. The eight-hour course features a curriculum developed by the National Center for Biomedical Research & Training, Academy of Counter-Terrorist Education, which is located at Louisiana State University, said Linda Maloney, director of SHU’'s public safety department. While the session is designed for “first responders” - usually fire, police, or public safety personnel who are first on-scene at emergencies - Maloney said she has been contacted by government officials, power plant employees, and even judges who want to attend. “They’'re really going to get a great understanding of the different types of weapons of mass destruction,” and how to respond to them, she said.

The program, funded through a federal Department of Homeland Security grant given to the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators (IACLEA), will help participants identify potential terrorist targets, and train them to develop an integrated, coordinated response to nuclear or biological attacks, Maloney said. Emergency personnel will learn guidelines for how to protect themselves while ensuring the safety of others, she said.

The homeland security department’'s two-year, $2 million grant to IACLEA will allow nearly 30,000 first responders to get training through 500 class sessions held around the country, according to SHU.