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False Alarm

Thursday, March 17, 2005; Page A24

AS OF TODAY, it seems virtually certain that anthrax scares at two Defense Department postal facilities on Monday were false alarms, odd though that coincidence may be. But the procedures followed in both cases still reveal a great deal about how well the national capital region, with its confluence of federal, state and local agencies, managed what could have been a health crisis. Unexpectedly, they may have also revealed a deep gap between military and civilian approaches to bioterrorism.

First, the good news: Enormous progress has been made since October 2001, when the first -- and still unsolved -- anthrax attack took place in Washington. The mere fact that the Pentagon's mailrooms are no longer inside the Pentagon itself is a big advantage. The screening systems also represent an advance. Last time around, nobody realized that postal workers were even endangered until some of them became sick. This time postal facilities were immediately shut down and workers were issued antibiotics. Both the Pentagon and local authorities were prepared for this kind of crisis and had the right equipment to deal with it.

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But while it seems that the Defense Department worked well with Arlington County police -- who agree that they have had ample time to train and practice with the agency -- the Pentagon failed to coordinate its initial activity with the Department of Homeland Security or the Department of Health and Human Services and its Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Not only were the latter not informed of the first incident for several hours, it isn't clear that the Pentagon ever intended to rely on them anyway. Apparently, the Pentagon has developed its own system of gauging and dealing with threats. This system depends heavily on private contractors, whose labs not only sounded the first false-positive alarm on Monday morning but let some mail circulate before establishing that it was safe to do so. The Pentagon has no explanation for that lapse, or for the fact that neither federal public health authorities nor Fairfax County police were aware of the first incident until after the second one took place in their jurisdiction. The Pentagon says it informed all relevant law enforcement agencies in good time, but if some didn't get the message, something is seriously wrong with the communication system.

The post hoc examinations of the incident may reveal more. But it is already clear that deeper and more frequent cooperation among all of the region's federal and local authorities has to be a critical part of emergency preparedness. It is also time to ask why the Pentagon has felt the need to develop, in effect, its own internal biohazard detection procedures, separate from those of the rest of the country. Does the Pentagon not think that DHS and HHS are up to the job?

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