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September 2002: Volume 44, Number 9

Bioterrorism Awareness: An Interview with the Lake Bluff, Ill., Fire Chief
by Carlos David Mogollón, WC&P Executive Editor

We had an opportunity in mid-August to speak with Robert Graham, chief of the Lake Bluff Volunteer Fire Department in Lake Bluff, Ill., near Chicago. Chief Graham, who is a member of a state committee on disaster preparedness to help communities avoid terrorism-related catastrophes, gave a presentation last winter to the Illinois chapter of the Water Quality Association on what POU/POE dealers should be aware of regarding the topic. The following conversation is a web exclusive interview:

WC&P: Obviously, this is going to be the one-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11. That’s why we wanted to talk to you. What are your thoughts on the topic of water safety, bioterrorism and what message should be sent to those professionals in our industry?

Graham: I guess I would have a three-prong message. The first prong is that people are going to be less tolerant of emergency responders and potable water suppliers if there is an attack on a public water supply and the local fire department or water agency isn't prepared for whatever might happen. Quite a lot of people are looking at last year's 9/11 as a warning and a call to action. The second part would be that it isn't over yet. That doesn't mean we have something eminent, but we certainly have threats continuing. And the need for vigilence and preparation is not reduced by time. It's actually enhanced by what's going on. The third thing is the only way I know a local water agency can prepare is to contact their local emergency responders, fire and police departments, and start planning if they haven't already. Or, if they did start planning last year, it's probably time to talk to them again and review plans.

WC&P: I would anticipate correspondingly that a residential water treatment equipment dealer would want to stay in touch with their local fire department as well as the local water utilities.

Graham: Absolutely. Anybody that deals in the public water supply is a potential target, as are the responders to those emergencies. We certainly have to change the way we operate as well.

WC&P: Now, I know one of the messages that we got at the last big convention, the WQA Convention, was that there shouldn't really be any claims being made regarding POU/POE devices such as reverse osmosis or water softeners in terms of their capabilities of protecting against biological agents. That's even though the possibility is that it's an additional layer to overcome, there's no testing to prove they're effective against these agents.

Graham: Exactly. That's an untested theory.

WC&P: Somebody shouldn't really rely on that.

Graham: Right. Nor should the agency or industry be touting that as a sales point.

WC&P: When you gave the presentation to the Illinois WQA, what were some of the questions that were asked?

Graham: We had all sorts of things like, "Is it over?," "What can be done?," "How should one react to potential problems… if there is a phone call and so on?," "What kind of security should be done?" We got into things like perimeters. We got into things like, if hazardous materials are being delivered to your plant, we're certainly recommending that the day before they're due, a copy of the driver's license of the deliverer should be forwarded via fax or whatever method to the water agency. That vehicle should be stopped at the outer boundary of the water plant and that checked to make sure: "This is the same driver and, yes, we have ordered this material and, yes, it's OK to bring it onto the site."

WC&P: That whole thought process is pretty scary unto itself.

Graham: Oh, yes. With all the commercial drivers license investigations that went on with the FBI, they found problems in Illinois, they found problems in Pennsylvania, and so on, with people buying those. For what purpose, who knows? But it's certainly a cause for action. Then, we had the warning about three months ago now about divers. Perhaps some of the people involved in 9/11 also took underwater diving lessons.

WC&P: Yes, I recall there being the issue about the Coast Guard saying harbors were really the least protected area as a point of entry into the United States.

Graham: Yes. So, if local agencies are getting their supply from lakes or reservoirs, they certainly should be notifying their fire departments before they go down and do any work. We're certainly keeping a careful watch on these things. We happen to be right on Lake Michigan, so we've coordinated with our local agencies that if they go down -- or if we go down -- we both know.

WC&P: Right, so that effectively, if somebody's made aware, nobody comes in with guns blazing vs. if somebody is there when there hasn't been any information shared, you know they're not supposed to be there. It would make sense.

Graham: Exactly.

WC&P: Realistically, how big is the threat that this would be an avenue that would be chosen for such an attack?

Graham: Well, we certainly have no information other than the fact that infrastructure has been targeted and will continue to be targeted, not only by 9/11, but if you go back to the situation in Japan where they went after the government offices and so on with sarin gas. You might remember that. And there have been other attacks where it's infrastructure that they go for because what terrorists are trying to do is increase fear…

WC&P: I believe in Colombia, some water utility facilities were just attacked a few months ago.

Graham: Yes, they just attacked more last week.

WC&P: Then as well?

Graham: Yes, it was in Bogota, where they set off five devices. What the terrorists are trying to do is to undermine the confidence in the population that they're government can protect them. It makes sense that infrastructure is where you go.

WC&P: It would seem -- there again, even though no claims should be made -- that, since the USEPA, with most contaminants, takes a multibarrier approach is best perspective, having a home water treatment system is just another level of protection even though one can't count on it necessarily to stop all organisms or contaminants…

Graham: I certainly can't comment on that. That’s not something I'd be out there waving.

WC&P: It's funny because it's a Catch-22 because how do you discuss it? I think it's something that will have to wait around until the regulatory and certification agencies such as the USEPA or NSF get around to…

Graham: Looking at that, yes.

WC&P: Enough said.