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SHOWDOWN WITH IRAQ

Bratton Cites Safety Fears

He calls firefighters, police ill-equipped for bioterror. Hahn says funds being sought.

March 13, 2003|Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writer

As local officials prepare for a possible war in Iraq, Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton warned Wednesday that the city's police officers and firefighters are ill-equipped to deal with biological or chemical attacks at home.

LAPD officials said that about 200 of the city's 9,000 police officers and 3,000 firefighters have protective gear. They estimated that it would cost $100 million to properly equip the rest.

"We are probably one of the most under-equipped major cities in the country right now," Bratton said. "Most of my officers, if there were to be a chemical or biological incident, what they have to protect them is this badge on their chest. That's shameful."

Bratton voiced his concern after the first meeting of Mayor James K. Hahn's Homeland Security Cabinet, which comprises police, fire, port, airport and utility managers.

Hahn sought to temper Bratton's comments by saying that the city is actively seeking federal financial assistance and that it has detailed plans to respond to terrorist attack.

"I don't think it's bleak at all," Hahn said in response to a reporter's question. "We have a very well-coordinated plan to protect the citizens of this city."

If the nation goes to war, LAPD officials said, the Police Department would go on tactical alert and put additional officers on the street. More than 100 officers would be deployed immediately to Los Angeles International Airport, and others would check on about 500 other buildings and facilities considered to be potential terrorist targets, LAPD Cmdr. Mark Leap said.

At the first report of war, the city would open its Emergency Operations Center, where Hahn and other city leaders would coordinate intelligence on possible threats and manage the possible response of emergency personnel.

Officials also discussed heightened security for the Academy Awards ceremony, which is scheduled March 23.

Bratton said Wednesday that a federal Health and Human Services Department expert in chemical and biological contamination came to Los Angeles earlier this week to assist in ensuring that there are sufficient precautions for the event. As a result, the police and fire departments will increase their presence in and around the Kodak Theater in Hollywood, the site of the ceremony.

Officials declined to discuss their plans in detail and said they did not want to cause unnecessary alarm.

Because of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., security was tighter than usual at last year's Oscars ceremony, with police increasing patrols in the area and closing several nearby streets.

Hahn said that the contingency plans discussed by eight members of his cabinet on Wednesday are a precaution and that there are no known threats against Los Angeles.

"We have never received any specific information regarding any specific threat aimed at Los Angeles so far," Hahn told reporters at City Hall. "We acted, though, as if somebody somewhere may decide to do something here. We want to be prepared."

Bratton and other city officials acknowledged that there are serious deficiencies in the city's ability to respond.

The city needs special suits to protect police officers and firefighters from biological and chemical attack, because they probably will be the first to respond to any incident.

Fifty police officers are now equipped with protective gear to respond to a chemical or biological attack, Leap said. The Fire Department has 75 "Level A" suits designed to provide the most protection from chemical or biological contamination and about 80 "Level B" suits that offer less protection, Assistant Chief Dean Cathey said.

City officials have been awarded grant funds to buy a couple of hundred more suits, with delivery expected in June or July.

Bratton blamed the federal government for the lack of proper equipment.

He said the Bush administration's offer of billions of dollars in aid to Turkey if it allows U.S. troops to stage in that country "is disgraceful when they are not spending a red cent on the 9,000 members of the Los Angeles Police Department and the thousands of firefighters. If something happens on the home front, we are in real trouble."

Leap said the city has plans that would allow it to call in 23,000 police officers and 11,000 firefighters from other cities in the region within four hours if Los Angeles needs help. Many would be specially trained and equipped to handle chemical, biological or radiological contamination, Leap said.

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