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What if terrorists attack the metro?


The discovery last week by British police of caches containing a half-ton of the same fertilizer compound used in the Oklahoma City bombings was a timely reminder for Ted Townsend of the continuing threat al-Qaeda operatives pose. Authorities seized ammonium nitrate from locations in more than a half-dozen small boroughs around London, most of which the well-traveled Des Moines businessman couldn’t place on a map. It would be like a Brit trying to spot Ankeny or Urbandale or Clive on a world map. If suspected terrorist groups could assemble bombs in Uxbridge and Slough, can Greater Des Moines residents feel immune?

Townsend, the president and chief executive of Des Moines-based Townsend Engineering Co., has been turning similar questions around his mind for about nine months. They were planted by a chilling warning last summer by the Council on Foreign Relations that “the United States … remains dangerously unprepared to handle a catastrophic attack on American soil, particularly one involving chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear agents or coordinated high-impact convention means.”

More stunning yet to Townsend was the cost to adequately equip emergency responders: an estimated $100 billion over the next five years. He reasoned that if Greater Des Moines were the target of terrorist attacks — a possibility, surely, in terrorists’ methodical, patient plan to weaken America’s spirit — the city’s emergency responders would be ill-equipped to handle the biohazards or other catastrophies left in its wake.

“Through the next decade or longer, our society and culture will endure on ongoing, painful transition into a permanently turbulent world,” Townsend said. “Sadly, this process may well bring hideous terror close to home. Our adversaries are zealous, smart, patient and numerous enough to preclude us from preventing all attacks. The potential weapons in their arsenal range from horrifying to unimaginable.

“Unfortunately, by every measure, we are under-prepared,” he said. “There is no secure location, even in Iowa.”

The need to prepare for catastrophe comes at a time when state and local governments are scraping their budgets to find minute sources of cash. So millionaire Townsend looked to the private sector. He and his father, Ray, the founder of Townsend Engineering and inventor of many of the divices that made it internationally successful, provided $50,000 in seed money to a fund to properly equip the metro area’s police and emergency responders. Townsend is asking other well-heeled business executives and philanthropists in Greater Des Moines to do the same. The Greater Des Moines Community Foundation is collecting donations, which so far total about $100,000. Townsend hopes to raise at least $1 million.

Des Moines Fire Chief Phillip Vorlander says it would cost about $812,500 to properly equip firefighters and emergency responders, while Des Moines Police Chief Bill McCarthy put the cost of specialty equipment for his department at around $593,800. Combined, the two departments’ minimum needs for specialty equipment exceed $1.4 million, part of which is offset by money from the Iowa Emergency Management Division and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

But demands continue to increase. The Des Moines Police Department is an accredited and certified FBI bomb squad and as such, is mandated to buy certain equipment. “One of our primary concerns now is that the FBI Bomb Data Center is moving toward requiring every accredited bomb squad to have a hazardous incident robot with multiple capabilities of evaluation, extraction and render-safe by the year 2005,” McCarthy wrote in a letter to Townsend. “The FBI has already stated that they do not intend to finance the purchase of these robots since about half of all bomb squads in the country already have some type of robot system. We do not.”

Also, McCarthy pointed out, the DMPD’s bomb unit doesn’t have the transportation and mobile storage required to move the newly mandated equipment to a disaster site. “If we can obtain a robot, it and all of the remaining equipment requires a vehicle similar to a a walk-in rescue unit,” he said.

The robot system would cost approximately $180,000, the transport vehicle an additional $250,000.

Both Vorlander and McCarthy said their departments’ equipment needs would go unmet if the financial burden rested entirely on taxpayers.

The cost to properly equip the Des Moines police and fire departments represents a fraction of the $42.5 million in estimated equipment needs throughout Polk County, said Iowa Homeland Security Adviser Ellen Gordon.

Iowa’s share of federal homeland security grant money is around $30 million, and that must be distributed statewide, Gordon said. The money comes with strings attached and stipulations about how it can be used. Moreover, the grants will pay for only 3 percent of state’s emergency equipment needs, which Gordon’s office estimates at about $9.7 billion.

“When you look at all the requirements for first responders, it really causes us to set priorities and fund only the basic needs at this time,” Gordon said.

In a city experiencing a $2 billion rebirth, that’s not nearly good enough, according to Townsend. “We owe this to our communities,” he said. “The threat is very, very real. We don’t get it around here yet.”

Doug Reichardt, chairman and chief executive of the Holmes Murphy & Associates Inc. insurance brokerage, was among the first of about 400 business leaders to respond to Townsend’s one-time request for donations. Recognizing the private sector’s responsibility to respond when government lacks the necessary resources, he doesn’t want to wake up one morning and do a 9/11-type post-mortem on how leaders could have responded, but didn’t.

Gordon said Townsend is providing the kind of leadership needed in an increasingly unsafe world. “I’m truly impressed we have that kind of citizen commitment in our state,” she said. “I’d like to see other community leaders across the state emulate Ted’s actions and do the same things.

“The cost of preparing a country to respond to a terrorist attack can be overwhelming. There’s a point in time that we as citizens of our community have to decide what level of preparedness we want to have. If the resources aren’t coming from external sources, we as communities need to make some decisions.”

Donations should be made to the Greater Des Moines Community Foundation with the notation “First Responders Fund,” 1915 Grand Ave., Des Moines, Iowa 50309. All donations are tax-exempt, and 100 percent of the funds will be used to pay for needed equipment.

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