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BioTerrorism 101

In the post-9/11 era that we live in much has been said about the threat of bioterrorism and the vulnerabilities our nation faces with the prospect of such an attack. If you were a cop around that time then you probably remember the mass confusion that followed when the first wave of Anthrax attacks hit the U.S. mail and the subsequent emergencies that affected police, fire and EMS in response. I remember responding to an evacuated building only to find that the suspected substance was just good ol'fashion dust that attached itself to the mail package in question. That was not the problem. The real issue was that nobody in the emergency services sector had any idea of how to handle this type of incident. When I called the fire chief, he said that was our problem and visa versa. Who could blame the first responders for not knowing how to handle an incident of mass destruction?

Until 9/11, actually 9/18/01 to be exact, we had never had to deal with such an attack. After all, a biological agent that had been weaponized and deployed was a military problem not a civilian pubic safety issue; or so we thought up to that point. The truth is, what was thought to be the first biological terrorist attack on our citizenry did not occur on 9/18/01. Actually, there was a little known biological terrorist attack occurring in our Pacific Northwest in 1984. Back then the 24-hour cable news service didn't exist the way it does now and the mainstream media did not cover the event to the extent they would today. As a result, our nation's first biological terrorist attack on innocent citizens quickly passed into history, practically un-noticed, and only remains, fearfully real, in the memories of those who were its victims. From a law enforcement training perspective we never learned, on a grand scale, about how to handle these types of terrorist attacks. We chose to forget about their possibility and prayed they wouldn't happen.

The Dalles, Oregon (1984) Event

In an effort to destabilize and manipulate, through voter tampering, the local government of the town Dalles, Oregon, and the county of Wasco the cult group Rajneeshee clandestinely poisoned roughly 750 citizens with Salmonella. Their hope was to reduce voter turnout, via poisoning, and thereby take control of the local county judicial system where several seats were being contested for judge. Although several attack attempts were made, the most successful occurred between September and October of 1984 where nearly 12 operators (a.k.a. domestic terrorists) deployed Salmonella in 10 area restaurants. In particular, the salad bars of each restaurant were targeted. Ultimately, several members were prosecuted and served time for federal offenses. Interestingly, The Oregonian (newspaper) reported several years later that the federal and state governments were so concerned as to the success of the attack that the Journal of the American Medical Association decided not report on the event for 12 years, fearing copy-cat events. Thus, the information blackout began and the interest for serious response training, or protocols, for general municipal law enforcement faded into history as well.

The Usual Suspects

There are six, but potentially many others. The possibility of weaponizing biological agents is mind boggling on many different levels. It's a highly technical endeavor, yielding tremendous results, but possible with limited resources; hence the attraction for terrorists. Our purpose here is not to look at all possibilities when educating first responders, but to look at those representing the probability. Here they are:

  1. ANTHRAX - A bacterium that produces a fatal toxin. Inhaled, ingested or contact with an abrasion on the skin. If inhaled, early symptoms reminiscent of the common cold; skin infection may look like small insect bite at first progressively getting worse. Ingestion due to contaminated food leads to vomiting blood and severe diarrhea. Treatment through antibiotics. Prolonged diagnosis and treatment leads to death (1-3 days); lethality of successful attack on large population could be that of a nuclear weapon. One ounce (1 oz.) strategically released in a sporting stadium would infect everyone.
  2. BOTULISM - Another bacterium considered "the most potent substance known to man". Inhaled or ingested. Symptoms (blurred vision, slurred speech, muscle weakness starting at head and moving throughout body, etc.) within six hours to two weeks and death within 24 hours. Centers for Disease Control has the vaccine. A single, weaponized, gram deployed evenly would kill up to a million people.
  3. PLAGUE - Bacterium; naturally occurring and living harmlessly on rodents, but weaponized to be inhaled. Symptoms 1-6 days are fever, headache and weakness leading to shock and death between two and four days. Antibiotics administered within first 24 hours essential for survival. Effective dose is 100 to 500 organisms.
  4. SMALLPOX - It's a virus medically eradicated from the world in 1977, but thought to have been weaponized and modified by other countries. Initially inhaled and then spread by infected people through saliva droplets. Symptoms prevalent in about 12 days and include fever, fatigue and aches followed by rash with lesions leading to death in about two weeks. No identified treatment. Dose needed for infection; 10 to 100 organisms.
  5. TULAREMIA - "One of the most infectious pathogenic bacteria known". Inhaled or ingested. Symptoms apparent 1-2 weeks, followed by progressive weakness, weight loss, and death within 14 days. Antibiotics are the identified treatment. Exposure to ten to fifty organisms can cause infection. It's estimated that if 50kg were sprayed over a major city of 5 million then roughly 250,000 would be casualties with nearly 19,000 dead.
  6. VIRAL HEMORRHAGIC FEVERS - A group of illnesses caused by several special "families" of viruses. Some of the viruses are particularly deadly like the Ebola virus. Symptoms (fever, fatigue, dizziness, muscle aches, etc.) visible within 2-21 days. No identified treatments other than supportive therapy. Infective amount is 1 to 10 organisms.

What does this mean for first responders? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are worried about the above six compared to all others, either known or unknown. In their view, these six when weaponized and deployed pose a risk to national security that is high priority. In response to this identified threat, police, fire, security, and EMS should have at least received the basic knowledge of how to handle these incidents. To address our general lack of operational knowledge I suggest the following:

  • Realize that a bio-terror attack can affect your community. The accumulation of knowledge starts with awareness. Even if you choose to believe "it will never happen here", understand that Weapons of Mass Destruction doctrine stipulates that preparations for an attack on "city X" starts in the planning and preparation stage in "city Y"; usually not your target location. That means your officers may have the chance of interdicting terrorists planning an attack, or making preparations for one, in your town with intentions of hitting your neighboring city.
  • The preferable time and the place for stopping a terrorist attack is not during their "phase of execution" - while enroute to the target. Rather you are more effective when you search out terrorists and disrupt their planning when they are most vulnerable (preparations, logistics, intelligence gathering, etc.). Especially when the terrorist attack is biological where the actual event occurred a week or two prior to the mass outbreak of infection.
  • Discovering their vulnerabilities means you have to know what to look for. Of the six most concerning agents to the CDC their common denominator for "deployment" is through aerosol spraying. Unless you have informants embedded within a terrorist cell (and your local agency probably does not), where you are getting up-to-date intelligence, you have to start somewhere. Look for suspicious behavior that focuses on the purchase of equipment for dispensing aerosols, out of the ordinary interest with decontamination, farming, pharmaceutical technology, websites or other support material showing how to harvest biological hosts, etc.
  • Remind yourself every day as you go on patrol that SURVEILLANCE is the #1 indicator of an impending terrorist attack. Catch someone surveilling a location, better first think possible terrorist before anything other.


Here is the least you need to know for this section -

  • The first biological terrorist attack occurred in the U.S. in 1984.
  • The CDC has identified six bacteriums or viruses as high priority and a risk to national security: Anthrax, Botulism, Plague, Smallpox, Tularemia, and Viral Hemorrhagic Fevers.
  • The six are extremely deadly, currently exist, and are sought out by terrorists who want to use them against our civilian populations.
  • They are all deployed through aerosol spraying.
  • Seek out suspicious activity revolving around the deployment preparations and method, densely populated events as potential targets (sporting events, transit centers, etc.) and other linked intelligence.