Blue Canaries

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, 200 Los Angeles police officers — most dressed in T-shirts and jeans, a quarter of them women — slouch into chairs in three different classrooms at the LAPD’s Westchester recruit training academy to stare at an instructional video involving goats wearing gas masks. Actually, only two of the three goats on the screen have masks strapped over their snouts; the third goes without. All at once, a thick gaseous substance can be seen wafting in the animals’ direction. (Instructors are quick to point out that both film and goats are of World War II vintage.) Moments after the gas — which turns out to be hydrogen cyanide — reaches them, the maskless goat plus goat number two (a creature who, we are told, is wearing an inferior gas mask) collapses to the ground and, with a couple of unpleasant shudders, dies. Only goat three, which is purportedly wearing a top-grade U.S. Army gas mask, remains healthy and standing.

Welcome to Module 6: Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), the Los Angeles Police Department’s newest continuing-education course, a sort of Counterterrorism 101 that all officers of the rank of lieutenant and below are currently required to attend. The idea behind the eight-hour class is that, if the unthinkable happens, the first responders will likely be the average Jane and Joe officer on the street.

The class begins at noon sharp. By 20 minutes into the presentation, there is still audible mumbling about the difficulty of staying awake until 8 p.m., when the class ends. This seat shifting subsides a bit during the power-point presentation covering all the possible biological, nuclear, incendiary, chemical and explosive agents that terrorists — foreign and homegrown — might conceivably use to kill us. This includes such cheering items as dirty bombs (conventional explosives packed with radioactive materials, a combo al Qaeda used, albeit without complete detonation, in the first World Trade Center bombing); Ricin, a delayed-action cell toxin derived from the castor-bean plant that some whack-job militia-types from Minnesota (among others) were caught manufacturing in 1991; plus the various deadly substances that may be prepared using common chlorine.

Still, it isn’t until the goat film that everybody really snaps to attention.

Halfway through the day, the officers-students are divided up into smaller groups for “tabletop” exercises. These consist of hypothetical scenarios that each group must explore and analyze. Two scenarios involve imagined terrorist attacks in well-known L.A. locations. In a third, officers are asked what they’d do if, on a routine traffic stop, they happen to notice the driver has in his back seat a propane tank, a gas mask, some weird-looking objects and a map to LAX.

“Dude, you are so arrested,” yells one ultra-muscled traffic officer.

By the end of the day, most attendees appear to be reeling with a case of TMI — Too Much Information. And, although the course seems intelligently designed, other than the broad strokes, it is difficult to say how much is being retained. “Ideally this would be a three-day course,” says lead course designer Lieutenant Bill Murphy. “But we don’t have three days, so we felt it was better to overload everybody with information, rather than not give them enough.” Out of the glut of facts, severl points stand out:

• If you walk into a crime scene and people are choking, seizing, running at the nose or unconscious, this is not a good sign. (If you find that all the animals on scene are dead, this is a much worse sign. If the insects are dead too, you’re truly screwed.)

• In case of exposure to a questionable substance, the best on-hand decontaminating substance is plain old water. Cold, not hot.

• The majority (70 percent) of terrorist attacks involve explosives. But if one bomb has gone off, chances are there will be two, the second one timed to take out the crowd of cops, firefighters and onlookers who have gathered in response to the first. In the Bali bombing last year, for example, of the two devices, one went off prematurely. Had they detonated minutes apart as planned, the casualties would have been much, much higher.

• Don’t buy your own gas mask at the Army surplus store. Use only department-approved masks unless you want to risk joining the ill-fated goats.

The subject of goats and masks raises another pesky issue for the department as it wrestles with what its role ought to be in a Code Orange world. At present, each division has around 200 gas masks, not enough for every officer, but probably sufficient for all on-duty folks, in case of a disaster. However, the gas masks are decades old and require replacement filters to function. The various divisions indeed have a supply of replacement filters. Yet officers claim that most of the replacement filters have a 1985 sell-by date, with a six-year window on effectiveness after that. (I’ve looked at these filters, and they are indeed dated a not very reassuring 1985.) “In other words, they’re worthless,” says an officer who used to work anti-terrorism. “Even if they were up-to-date,” admits Captain Sergio Diaz, acting head of the department’s training division, “they’re designed for crowd control, not counterterrorism.” Meaning, they filter out Mace and tear gas, not sarin, or hydrogen cyanide.

To remedy the situation, Chief William Bratton has succeeded in prying $6 million out of the cash-strapped City Council, some of which will go to buy up-to-date gas masks and protective suits for every officer in the department. But in state and city government, nothing is ever simple. So before the masks et al. could be ordered, the department learned that oversight agencies like Cal-OSHA and California POST (Peace Officer Standards and Training) might require every officer to receive 16 hours of training (plus additional time to fit the masks) before they are allowed to wear any of the protective gear — training that would be untenably time-consuming to design and deliver. “It was a mess,” says Diaz. A few days ago, the LAPD succeeded in negotiating the training down to eight hours, half of which it is hoping can be credited to the Module 6 class that most officers are already receiving. “Four hours we can live with,” says Diaz.

Until then, the rank and file are stuck with the 1985 filters. “Which does not exactly make us feel protected,” grumbles an officer. “You know what the Fire Department calls us? They call us the ‘blue canaries.’ Great.”

On the other hand, counterterrorism seems to involve weighing of probabilities against possibilities, and, in terms of probability, the gas masks might not matter. “Conventional explosives are still the highest threat to Los Angeles,” says John Miller, the head of the LAPD’s Counter Terrorism Bureau. (Originally called Homeland Security, the bureau was recently re-christened to avoid confusion with Tom Ridge and the feds, either that or because the new title looks snazzier on business cards.) “Al Qaeda has typically used truck bombs. September 11 was the anomaly. With all the increase in airline security, it would be like them to go back to the path of least resistance: large vehicle, great big bomb, soft target.”

“And it will look ordinary,” adds an Anti-Terrorism Division veteran. “It might come as an abandoned-car call. Or a run-of-the-mill burglary call-out. Unfortunately, it’s probably going to take a really, really experienced person to recognize it.” Which, of course, the average cop with eight hours of WMD is not.

Yet, after explosives, the next odds-on favorite is chemical. “Probably something simple like chlorine,” says Bill Murphy, “you know, stuff you can buy at your local pool-supply store.”

And how prepared is the LAPD for a chemical attack?

Not very, according to Miller. “At least we know what our response is to a big bomb. But if we had a chemical attack in a subway or a mall or a theater, have we practiced enough to know where the cracks in our response might be? Frankly, no. Our breadth of experience is almost nil. So, if we have a radio call, will the cops go running in and will the first wave go down? Will we lose radio communication? Will the second wave follow them and will we have a lot more victims? These are the training issues we have to address — and quickly.”

So how exactly does Module 6, WMD help address them?

“It’s a beginning,” says Miller. “Look: This whole counterterrorism thing is a new science of policing. And we’re still rolling with the punches.