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U.S. much safer, if not yet risk-free

Experts meeting in Washington review the steps that have made homeland more secure

Sunday, March 02, 2003

By Ann McFeatters, Post-Gazette National Bureau

WASHINGTON -- No one can precisely gauge how much safer from terrorist attack the United States is since Sept. 11, 2001. But there can be no doubt the country has mobilized to defend its territory unlike any time since World War II.

Homeland security officials held a conference in Washington last week with businesspeople involved in protecting the nation, and they talked of the myriad ways in which the nation has responded to its newfound sense of insecurity.

Immigration officials have not only beefed up screening at consulates abroad and required visitors from certain countries to be fingerprinted, they are now so tightly tracking foreign students that they require notification from universities when foreign students miss class for two days.

The aim, said acting deputy commissioner Mike Becraft, is to quickly detect when foreign students drop out of school. Some of the 9/11 hijackers got into the country on student visas and then melted into obscurity as they plotted their crimes.

The Customs Service, which each year processes 500 million people and 19 million cargo vessels entering the country, now has agreements with 18 of the 20 biggest ports in the world to inspect containers before they depart for the United States. By the end of the year, all Customs inspectors will have radiation detectors to prevent the smuggling of nuclear devices or materials.

Remote sensors, laser detectors and altered security routines made critical infrastructure such as bridges, power plants and refineries considerably more secure, government officials said.

Emergency information technology and coordination has improved a great deal, according to Michael Byrne, senior director for response and recovery in the new homeland security department. For every problem, he said, "There's some smart person with an idea on how to fix it."

For instance, Arlington County, Va., where the Pentagon and Reagan National Airport are located, now has 40 separate emergency-response sites such as police and fire stations wired to exchange "real-time video" in case of calamity. Christopher David, chief technology officer for the county, said extensive training in how to use such technology is under way. "When technology projects fail miserably," he said, "it's because of the people element."

David goes around throwing a soft plastic ball at people or critical systems and demands to know the backup plan if that supervisor is killed or that switch fails.

Brenton Greene, deputy manager of the National Communications System, said 10,000 switches in the private telecommunications network have been installed to pinpoint critical problems quickly. On 9/11, Greene said, the government's emergency telecommunications service kicked in when cell phones proved useless in the Washington D.C. area, but it quickly reached capacity. Now there is a backup system.

The Defense Department now has 2,000 new communications circuits and procedures have been set up to issue early warnings of trouble over the Internet at key e-commerce and other Web sites.

Rose Parkes, chief information officer for FEMA, said 9/11 was a wake-up call to improve coordination between states and the federal government. There now are plans and systems set up in major cities, for example, to bring in federal search and rescue teams, provide overflight clearances and remove debris, whether the disaster is manmade or natural.

FEMA has set up a Web site, www.disasterhelp.gov, to serve as a portal for emergency information for government officials and private citizens. On Friday, it immediately noted that the national threat level had been lowered from orange (high) to yellow (elevated).

FEMA does worry, however, that information sharing among various agencies is not nearly good enough, noting that more than half of the nation's first responder organizations don't have adequate communications links. "The number one lesson of 9/11 was the inability [of emergency teams] to communicate with each other," Parkes said. Teams should be linked by voice, video and data.

John Parker, former commanding general of the Army Medical Research and Materiel Command and now an executive with Science Applications International Corp., said improvements in the public health system's ability to respond to biological, radiological or chemical attacks have been particularly dramatic. "I feel pretty secure," he said. "Those responders will contain [a problem] and do it well."

For example, software that detects evidence of a bioterror attack by monitoring activity in hospital emergency rooms is now available free to public health organizations.

The computer program, called the Real-time Outbreak Disease Surveillance System, was developed at the BioMedical Security Institute, a collaboration between the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. RODS receives data about the volume of patients presenting with chief complaints of diarrhea, rash, respiratory illness and other key symptoms.

Despite the many improvements in public security since 9/11, however, William Jeffrey, head of research and development for the Homeland Security Council, warned that "the challenges are great, and the range of hazards presented may not even be known."

Ann McFeatters can be reached at amcfeatters@nationalpress.com or 1-202-662-7071.

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