What is WMD, and why should I be worried about it?
By Captain Philip H. East, NREMT-P

This is a question that fire departments, rescue squads, first aid crews, EMS agencies, and emergency managers across the country are asking themselves after 9/11.  But should this be a new question?  Many jurisdictions are trying to play catch up in their response, some are well into the process, but no one can fully be prepared for a WMD event.

The legal definition of a ''Weapon of Mass Destruction'' is from Title 18 of the United States Code, Part I, Chapter 113B, Section 2332 (A) any destructive device as defined in section 921 of this title; (B) any weapon that is designed or intended to cause death or serious bodily injury through the release, dissemination, or impact of toxic or poisonous chemicals, or their precursors; (C) any weapon involving a disease organism; or (D) any weapon that is designed to release radiation or radioactivity at a level dangerous to human life. 

The working definition of a Weapon of Mass Destruction is a substance, material or device, that is used by a terrorist organization to cause mass casualties, great damage to buildings or infrastructure, chaos in government and/or many other items to create havoc in our communities.  WMD’s may be built strictly for that purpose, such as a nuclear detonation device or a chemical dissemination sprayer.  Or they may be an improvised device, such as an explosive strapped to a chemical container, or a jumbo jet flown into a skyscraper.  The result is the same with either such situation.  Mass hysteria, multiple casualties, and LOTS of media attention.

There are myriad reasons why a terrorist would use a WMD, but for the first responder motive plays a very minor role in the response.  The user may have an argument with the government (e.g. The Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Ok.).  He may have religious reasons (e.g. The air attacks against the World Trade Centers, The Pentagon, and the failed attack resulting in the crash in Somerset County, Pa.).  The responders actions merely deal with mitigation efforts in such cases.  It is however important to the responder if the motive includes follow-up attacks on the responders as well as the original intended victims (e.g. The bombings at the Sandy Springs Clinic and The Otherside Lounge near Atlanta, Ga.).  These bombings had secondary devices placed with the express intent of injuring responders while they were working the initial bombings.

Should we all be concerned with WMD threats?  Most of the larger jurisdictions around the country have some form of planning addressing a WMD event.  But what about the small city, town or county?  If your town doesn’t have a plan because you think it can’t or won’t happen in your backyard, ask yourself this one question; Where did Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman’s followers construct the Urea Nitrate bomb that was used in the 1st attack on the World Trade Center in 1993.  Hint… it was a small town in New Jersey.

Prior to the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995, many people in the United Stated never believed that an attack could happen in our country.  As a direct result of that attack, the Weapons of Mass Destruction Act of 1996 was drafted by U.S. Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar.  This bill, later signed into law by President Clinton, allocated monies for Domestic Preparedness Training.  This training was the first wide-spread Nuclear, Biological and Chemical (NBC) training designed for non-military first responders.  Once this law was enacted, and the federal funding for the 120 most populated areas in the U.S. was initiated, the fire service began to recognize the actual threat of a WMD.  But no one was prepared for the magnitude of the attacks of 9/11.

Terrorism can come in many forms, from weapons of mass destruction, to eco-terrorism, to cyber-terrorism, to suicide bombings.  The tide is just beginning to ebb.  Over the next few months I will be addressing many issues dealing with terrorism, emergency response and domestic preparedness.

If we learn nothing else from the loss of 343 of our brothers from FDNY, let us learn to expect the unexpected, that none of us are immune from these types of attacks, and that the question is not if it will happen again, But… will we be prepared when it does?

Stay Safe!

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Captain Phil East
Captain Phil East is a Fire Captain and Paramedic with Norfolk Fire-Rescue in Norfolk, Virginia.  He is a 25-year veteran of the fire service, with 22 years on the job in Norfolk.  

He is currently assigned as his department’s Anti-Terrorism Coordinator, where he is responsible for program and policy development, coordination with other emergency response organizations, and facilitation of training programs.  

Captain East serves as a Safety Officer with Virginia Task Force II of the FEMA Urban Search and Rescue System, and is a member of the both the Tidewater Regional Technical Rescue Team and the Southside Tidewater Hazardous Materials Team. 

He was also a founding member of the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Department of Fire Programs Heavy and Tactical Rescue Instruction Team.