D.C. firefighters and medics now carry black "go-bags" meant to contain some essentials for dealing with a terrorist attack or hazardous-materials emergency, such as protective suits and rubber gloves. But some bags are missing an important accessory: duct tape to seal the apparel in place.
Instructions call for users to put on the clothing and gloves and then seal any openings with duct tape. The absence of the tape -- blamed on a budget concern -- has generated complaints from fire department personnel, including some who bought their own duct tape or borrowed rolls of the cloth medical tape used in ambulances to make kits complete.
Some experts criticized the fire department's failure to fully stock the bags, a problem that officials say they are working to correct.
"If you want to put something in a bag, then that entire product should work as a system," said Bill Haskell of the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Center in Natick, Mass. "And you need to have all the pieces."In the city's firehouses, the missing tape is symbolic of a larger issue: uncertainty over what first responders -- regular firefighters and medics with no special hazmat training -- should wear and do if they stumble onto a terrorist attack involving radiological, chemical or biological weapons. The frontline units would most likely encounter a disaster in its earliest, confusing moments.
Rescuers typically are told to help victims who can walk but to back off if victims are collapsing.
"The old saying is, 'If you see people start dropping, that's it,' " said Kenneth Lyons, who heads the union representing D.C. paramedics and emergency medical technicians. "But usually, if that occurs, we're right in the middle of it."
The D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department has spent about $13 million in federal money to improve its terrorism preparedness since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, including $2.6 million for equipment, $4.4 million for training and $6.1 million for fire apparatus, such as additions to its fleet of reserve fire engines.
Before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the department's specialized hazmat unit had shrunk to a part-time operation. It now comprises about 25 people and covers the city 24 hours a day. "We have the absolute best equipment that's out there, in all areas," Battalion Chief Michael Sellitto said of the hazmat unit.The 1,750-member department had already begun issuing "go-bags" to emergency medical personnel before the attacks, and some contained strips of tape to seal the cuffs. But later, when the department started issuing them to firefighters as well, budget concerns kept the duct tape out, Sellitto said.
At the time, the department could find only vendors who were selling rolls of duct tape for about $5 each, and the rolls contained far more tape than needed, he said. Since then, the department has located a vendor selling smaller rolls for less than a dollar, and those are on order, Sellitto said.
In the meantime, he said, the suit's elastic cuffs will help seal the sleeves, and firefighters can find duct tape on any firetruck -- though some in the department disagreed with that assertion.
The tape is necessary to make a seal around openings at the wrists, ankles and face. The D.C. police department, which has distributed similar kits to all its officers, included duct tape.
Some D.C. firefighters said they were troubled by the missing tape and apprehensive in general about the worth of the protective equipment they had been given. "I don't plan on putting mine on," one said.
"We're going to be laying on the ground, right beside you," another said.
But some specialists said the go-bag, which also includes protective goggles and an air filter to be attached to a face mask, compares favorably with kits given out by departments in bigger cities.
In the Washington region, Arlington County provides all its personnel with a suit that has been shown to keep out more toxins. But in Montgomery, Prince George's and Fairfax counties, firefighters so far have been told to wear their "turn-out gear" -- the coats, pants and air tanks they normally would wear into a house fire -- if they think they've encountered a hazmat situation.Those departments, like many others across the country, rely on a study conducted several years ago by the military that indicated that turn-out gear would give firefighters adequate protection from chemical warfare agents for three to 30 minutes, depending on the chemical and the severity of the attack.
But Randy Bruegman, president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, said relying on such basic equipment even for a few minutes is still "somewhat a roll of the dice."
The questions about equipment have been magnified by the uncertain directives first responders are given. Ultimately, in the District and elsewhere, they are supposed to pull back from the hot zone -- the immediate area of a hazmat release -- and call for the specially equipped squad. But firefighters and rescue workers will have to make a difficult decision about whether they should help victims before backing away to wait for help.
Sellitto says D.C. firefighters are supposed to make the decision after judging the severity of the attack. If the attack is radiological, fire engines carry Geiger counters, but if the attack is chemical, firefighters will not have a neat technological guide. Instead, the more they see "people showing symptoms, birds dropping out of the sky," Sellitto said, the more quickly they should leave. But in a biological attack, victims might not show symptoms immediately.