Terrorist act would be relief challenge

BY PJ HELLER | New York, NY | December 17, 1998

Efforts by disaster response organizations to develop a plan to provide relief following a possible terrorist attack on American soil are taking on a greater sense of urgency as security in public places is tightened here and in Washington this week.

Although the additional security has been taken largely as a result of the renewed hostilities with Iraq, warnings of possible terrorism incidents had been announced prior to the new bombing attacks.

"With respect to terrorism, the threat of terrorism has been with us for some time," Secretary of Defense William Cohen told a news conference in Washington today. "It is increasing. It is our anticipation that attempts will be made, as attempts have been made in the past."

"We have been somewhat successful -- quite successful, as a matter of fact, in frustrating several attempts during the course of this year to prevent bombings from taking place following those that occurred in East Africa," Cohen added.

"But we understand the nature of the threat. We can take only so many precautions. Everyone is on alert. We are also prepared to deal with it in whatever fashion we can from a military point of view. But we should always be prepared that this could happen at any time."

The emphasis of plans being developed by faith-based organizations is on pastoral care -- helping members of the clergy cope with their own emotional needs in the wake of a terrorist incident -- as well as crisis intervention response.

"Obviously we'll put together interfaith groups to deal with other aspects of a disaster beyond the pastoral care needs," said Bob Arnold, associate director of emergency response for Church World Service (CWS). "I think the difference is on the pastoral care and the crisis intervention side and what we can be doing along those lines.

"As far as we're concerned, it (a response plan) is something we clearly need to (help) formulate because it's going to become a bigger and bigger problem," he added. "I don't think there's any doubt about that."

Response organizations, ranging from the Clergy Response Institute to the National Organization for Victim Assistance (NOVA), are training care-givers to provide crisis intervention response services to others as well as helping the care-givers cope with the emotional trauma they may face themselves.

"We're all vulnerable too and have to look out for each other," said John Stein, deputy director at NOVA. The Washington, D.C.-based group is working with CWS in planning response to possible terrorist-caused disasters.

The two organizations are working on "developing a spiritual component to the crisis intervention plan they're trying to come up with relative to terrorist attacks," Arnold said.

Terry Westbrok, a retired police chief with 18 years of law enforcement experience and a disaster specialist with Church World Service, said he believes the U.S. should brace for more terrorist incidents.

"I think if you check with the federal agencies, they'll pretty much tell you the same thing: it's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when," he said.

Should an incident occur, disaster response organizations know that they may have to deal with carnage on a level never before experienced in disaster relief efforts. Unlike natural disasters, such as hurricanes or floods, people will have to deal with spiritual and emotional issues including fear, anger and blame.

Being able to cope with those types of situations, they say, could exact a heavy emotional toll on relief workers, particularly the clergy.

"We just think there may be some real needs with the clergy in making sense of all that," said Stan Hankins, associate for U.S. disaster response for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA).

To address that particular issue, PDA in coordination with Church World Service has set up a small group of religious leaders to handle "critical incident stress debriefing."

"Basically it's a peer person debriefing another peer person after a very traumatic event," Hankins explained.

"What we're talking about is a crisis team that would work with a dysfunctional pastor trying to get past that (incident) to return them in a healthy form to their congregation and their community," he said. "We hope we won't have to use the team very often."

Hankins said the Pastoral Reorientation Team, consisting of up to six people, is designed primarily to respond to terrorist incidents. Three clergy members have already been trained and another three are currently undergoing training, he reported.

Westbrok, former police chief in Kearny, Ariz., said pastoral counseling could also be provided for emergency response personnel, most likely through chaplains associated with local police and fire departments.

"I don't think there's any police department or fire department in Arizona now that hasn't had somebody go through some sort of critical stress debriefing training to been in contact with some organization that does it for police and fire departments," he said. "I think it's very important. I think we're going to see a greater use of it in the future."

Westbrok said that until recently, there was little interest "not just within the faith-based community but the entire security and police infrastructure for the U.S." in developing a plan on how to respond to a terrorist act.

The retired police chief said the U.S. has now begun "training major police departments to respond or to have the capability to respond to any kind of terrorist attack, such as chemical or biological weapons."

One of the announced purposes of the U.S. attacks on Iraq is to reduce the likelihood of the manufacture of biological weapons in that country.

Hankins said there was no specific incident that prompted the Presbyterian group to look at developing the debriefing program.

"There was just a general realization that the threat of terrorism is growing...and the realization that the U.S. is no longer safe from the threat of terrorism," he said. "In the past, these events have always happened overseas...but now we know it can strike within our shores. The threat is growing."

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