Area takes alert in stride
By Steve Urbon, Standard-Times senior correspondent
Now in the war against terrorism, it's "duct tape and cover with plastic," an official U.S. Department of Homeland Security suggestion that has sent many Americans scrambling to the hardware store for a bit of home(land) security against biological and chemical weapons.
The government, as part of its "Orange Alert," says that in the event of a terrorist attack, people should turn off all ventilation, go to a safe room and seal it with the tape and plastic sheets. If the room has 10 square feet of floor space per person, it should provide enough air for up to five hours, the government says.
In the eyes of UMass Dartmouth botulism researcher Dr. Bal Ram Singh, "this is exactly what the intention of a terrorist is" -- to keep a population nervous and defensive.
Dr. Singh is not especially concerned about the threat of bioterrorism or chemical weapons being unleashed in the United States, much less this corner of it.
But if people want to believe that they can be made safe by sealing off a room with duct tape and sheets of plastic, he said, there is no harm in it, even if it won't really do very much good.
"I think if it helps people to feel a little safer, it doesn't hurt. But I don't think anything of that nature is coming, in my assessment," he said.
By that he meant an aerosol attack, which would be all that the plastic-guarded room might protect against. "To put the aerosol, you would really need a huge amount of it and a method to deliver it," Dr. Singh said. "It would be a huge undertaking."
Although even a small vial of certain materials "can do havoc, it would have to be in a proper delivery system, and the United States is not a banana country where you can just walk in and do what you want to do."
Dr. Singh suggested that we would be more secure if public safety authorities became prepared to assess and deal with "commonly known threats" -- anthrax, botulism and certain viruses. Testing and monitoring ought to be done, he suggested.
But buying hard hats to protect against falling buildings, as some people are doing in cities, is not going to help very much, he said.
Taping up a room is not going to be of much use when the air runs out, he said. "If you're going to breathe, you need the air. I think people are going too far with this."
Most customers interviewed at Home Depot in Dartmouth felt likewise.
"If I lived in the city, then maybe, but I'm not in the city so I'm not worried about it. I use duct tape to keep the wind out of my house," said Betsey Lamont of Westport Point.
Jeannie Charest of Fall River, shopping with her husband, Danny, and 3-year-old daughter Cheyenne, said, "We weatherized all of our windows, so it's already done, and we have two freezers, so we always have food, so this is no big deal for us."
Russell Tetreault of Fairhaven was blunt: "I am absolutely not concerned. I think this is completely ridiculous."
Peter Frey of Rochester was philosophical: "I am not concerned, because God's in control. When your number is up, your number is up, no matter when you're going to die."
Gus Mortiana of Fall River wasn't buying the duct tape defense. "If something did happen, I don't think that duct tape is going to protect me," he said.
Tape and plastic are not the only safeguards around. The New Bedford Fire Department last week took delivery of a three-section decontamination shower tent.
Stored in a trailer to be towed to the emergency room or to a disaster site, it is essentially a car wash for humans. People enter one of three interior corridors, remove their clothing, and pass through repeated showers of Ivory soap, said Capt. Stephen Chmiel.
Capt. Chmiel, who is the city's representative on the state's hazardous materials response team, said 72 of the $64,000 units have been distributed to every community where an emergency room is located. A federal grant paid for them.
"Taking one's clothing off will rid you of 90 percent of contamination," he said. "The shower can take care of other things, shampooing it out of hair, face and eyes. It will get people as clean as possible. It's gross decontamination, just to get off the heavy contaminants."
The 45-foot-long high-tech tent, complete with plumbing and heating and divided into corridors for privacy, can be set up in just over 10 minutes, he said. Training will begin next week in tandem with St. Luke's Hospital after being postponed because of the deep cold.
He said the department has also practiced another decontamination technique in which fire trucks are used to create a huge outdoor shower. The drawbacks are that, unlike the decontamination tent, the runoff is not collected and the technique is not suitable for cold weather.
Civil rights activists in some cases have objected to people being rounded up, stripped and showered against their will. But Capt. Chmiel said local health authorities have "certain powers to quarantine people." And in the case of the decontamination tent, separate areas for men and women assure a measure of privacy.
Capt. Chmiel added that the city has acquired a new radiation detector, and has quick access to a handful of biological and chemical monitors distributed to some towns, including Dartmouth, by Bristol County Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson.
The state, meanwhile, maintains its own more sophisticated radiation and bioweapons monitors, which can be deployed immediately as he and his hazmat colleagues are called up.
Some people are not waiting that long, however.
Many of them are customers of John Fine, owner of Bananas Inc. an Army/Navy surplus store in East Wareham.
"A lot of people in the last few days have been buying gas masks and survival suits. People are calling from all over the country. The wholesalers are running out of gas masks and have been calling us for more," he said.
In past week, he said, he has sold 100 gas masks for $29.99, while Russian ones go for $19.99. Two dozen survival suits, made of rubberized plastic with elastic around the legs and arms, ran out quickly at $10 each.
"We're telling people that you might be wasting your time, we think that nothing may happen."
"Before 9/11," he said, "we only sold gas masks around Halloween, but afterward we had a big rush and that died a few months later. But for the past few days, the demand has started up again. We're getting calls from people all over the country."
Dick Post of Onset is buying gas masks for his parents.
"They take lots of trips into New York and they would feel better if I got them some gas masks," he said.
This story appeared on Page A1 of The Standard-Times on February 14, 2003.