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Copyright 2005 Newsday, Inc.

Newsday (New York)

July 25, 2005 Monday
NASSAU AND SUFFOLK EDITION

NEWS; Pg. A21

994 words

Preparing for the worst;
In the hills of New Mexico, first responders learn how to cope with a terrorist attack

BY DEBORAH BARFIELD BERRY. WASHINGTON BUREAU

SOCORRO, N.M. - Todd Stumpf watched in awe as the faded green sedan loaded with 500 pounds of ammonium nitrate fuel oil blew up, sending dark clouds of smoke high into the air of this desert town. Even half a mile away and behind a steel bunker, the detective felt the shock waves deep in his chest.

Minutes later, Stumpf walked around the crater where the car once was. He marveled at the few remains - the engine now a twisted chunk of metal. Tiny metal bits littered the ground.

"I was astonished at what was left," Stumpf would say later. "It was completely gone."

Stumpf, a detective with the Stony Brook University police, had never fooled with explosives. Never had reason to. But now Stumpf is preparing for what he and other firefighters, cops and emergency health officials fear is the new wave of terrorism attacks - car bombs, homemade pipe bombs and suicide bombers. They believe terrorists are bound to strike again somewhere in America. They call the recent London bombing attacks "wake-up calls."

"It's scary, but it's going to happen again," said Stumpf, a volunteer firefighter in Suffolk, whose T-shirt read "Gone but not forgotten. Through training we remember."

"It can happen anywhere," he said. "The thing is to know what to do if it does happen."

Stumpf spent last week at New Mexico Tech, the site of one of the federal Department of Homeland Security's training centers, a sort of boot camp on explosives. Stumpf and 41 other first responders from across the country learned about explosives - the devastating impact of something as small as a letter bomb or as lethal as a car bomb. They got pointers on how to search for evidence and protect crime scenes. They learned to ensure victims and other first responders are safe distances from the scene of an explosion.

The Incident Response to Terrorist Bombing program seeks to better prepare the first responders who will be on the frontline of terrorist attacks. Since Sept. 11, some 12,000 to 13,000 have gone through the program, federal officials say.

And while most of the nation's 3 million to 4 million first responders won't attend the class, officials are banking on folks like Stumpf to return home and train colleagues.

"I wish we could get to more people," said Van Romero, vice president of research and economic development at New Mexico Tech. "Train the trainer," he said, is one way to do that.

Meanwhile, lawmakers are reviewing the effectiveness of Homeland Security training programs. At a recent congressional hearing, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly lauded the programs.

At the New Mexico training center last Wednesday, the temperature soared to more than 100 degrees. Still, Angela Hodge, a registered nurse from Portsmouth, Ohio, inched through the sand searching for bits and pieces of remains from a pipe bomb that just exploded. Hodge jiggled her finds - some particle board and small pieces of twisted metal. Instructors told her they could be key evidence.

While Hodge doesn't suspect terrorists will target her rural community, she notes that it's only two hours away from major cities like Columbus and could be a staging ground.

"I hope we never have something blow up in southern Ohio. But the lessons learned here will help us respond to [that] and other emergency situations," Hodge said.

First responders say they can't be prepared enough and can use the lessons for more likely dangers, such as the rise of methamphetamine labs.

It's the up-close look at the aftermath of explosives that first responders said left imprints, particularly the remains - a pulverized watermelon - of the "poor man's bomb," a home-made concoction of potassium chloride and Vaseline.

Terrorists can make that in a garage, instructors said.

Inside a two-room structure, responders later sifted through charred remains of a letter bomb and another bomb planted in a briefcase. One mannequin lost his shoulders. The arms lay a few feet away.

"You can sit in a class, but to actually see it . . . it really drives that lesson home," said Jerry Duchaine, a firefighter and intermediate-level emergency medical technician from Vermont.

When not watching things blow up, the responders sat through classes taught by bomb experts from around the country. They went over cases such as the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, dissecting what first responders did right and what they did wrong.

First responders from small police and fire departments and even large ones like New York say that without the federal government picking up the tab, many couldn't afford the class. It runs about $2,000 to $2,500 for each participant.

The program takes place on a 40-square-mile campus in the southern part of New Mexico, mostly desert and mountains. It is one of five in a consortium funded by Homeland Security, including one in Nevada focusing on nuclear weapons and another in Louisiana targeting biological threats.

While the New Mexico program has been around since World War II, the focus shifted to training first responders after the Sept. 11 attacks. Classes have grown from about 20 participants attending one or two sessions a month to groups of 45 coming in for eight sessions a month.

Romero said there is a six-month wait. Interest in the suicide bombing class has grown since the London attacks.

Jim Carafano, a homeland security expert at the Heritage Foundation conservative think tank, said the training, which sets federal standards for training, is a major step in prevention. "The best responder is an educated one," he said.

Stumpf plans to conduct a class for his co-workers, having taken a test for federal certification at the end of the week. He called the course worthwhile, but said first responders still need continuous training.

Chris Iannuzzi, a captain in the Durham, N.C., fire department and a Huntington native, stood next to the remains of the two-room building.

"This is going to happen somewhere," said Iannuzzi, pointing to the site, littered with debris. "Look what just happened in London."
 
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