Montgomery health officials have begun distributing antibiotics to the county's 2,000 paid and volunteer firefighters as a precaution against bioterrorist attacks.

The antibiotics are part of the county's preparations in case of an emergency. Starting next month, public health workers and selected hospital employees will begin to receive smallpox vaccinations, under an initiative ordered by the White House. Firefighters and other public safety workers will be inoculated in the spring.

Last year, officials assembled a bioterrorism team that includes two nurses, a manager and an epidemiologist who are coordinating the county's response to biohazards. County leaders have said that emergency preparedness is a priority, particularly because Montgomery is home to 23 federal facilities.

Firefighters are typically the first to respond to any emergency, and officials said they wanted the rescue workers to have the antibiotics available before an attack occurs.

"If we had to drop what we were doing and go get treated or go to our doctors, there would be a break in service," said Pete Piringer, a fire department spokesman. "To provide the prophylactic ahead of time, there would be no delay."

Each firefighter is receiving two bottles of doxycycline pills, one each to keep at work and home, Piringer said. The antibiotics, which are effective against biological agents such as anthrax and bubonic plague, will be taken only on the orders of a health official.

The county and police union are negotiating the terms of a similar antibiotic distribution for police, said Lynn L. Frank, chief of public health services.

The antibiotics are being funded with a $70,000 grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for Montgomery to build its stockpile of pharmaceuticals.

Frank said that typically antibiotics are not distributed unless needed because health workers worry that people will take them indiscriminately. "We're sort of facing the reality of protecting a population as large as Montgomery and the logistics of it," she said.