CORONER OFFICIAL CITES A NEED FOR THREAT DEFENSE



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Last Updated

03 Jul 2003

Source: Los Angeles Times, July 3, 2003

Coroner Official Cites a Need for Threat Defense

Comments that better equipment is needed to deal with terror attacks come after grand jury said department is not ready for mass fatalities.

By Joy L. Woodson, Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles County coroner's office needs better equipment to respond to chemical, biological or radiological threats, department spokesman David Campbell said this week.

Campbell's remarks Tuesday came days after a warning from the Los Angeles County Grand Jury that the coroner's office is ill-prepared for mass fatalities involving hazardous materials, mainly because it does not have protective equipment.

The grand jury, concerned about the possibility of a terrorist attack, said Friday that the coroner's office needs biohazard suits and other equipment.

"The coroner cannot be dependent on local fire departments to perform the recoveries and needs to have the appropriate equipment among its own supplies," the grand jury said.

The coroner's office has applied for federal funding to purchase hazardous materials suits that would cost at least $600,000, the grand jury said. An additional $103,000 has been approved by the Board of Supervisors to train 18 people.

The county coroner's office has one technician trained to respond to chemical, biological or radiological events and certified to use the Level-A protective gear, which allows no absorption through the skin or lungs, Campbell said.

"Currently, we do not have the capabilities to work in a decontamination site," said Julie Wilson, an investigator who works with Assistant Chief Juan Jimenez, in charge of disaster preparedness for the coroner's office.

The Los Angeles Fire Department, which would support the coroner's office in a hazardous event, has 150 people trained to use Level-A suits, Assistant Fire Chief Tim Manning said.

County Fire Inspector Roland Sprewell said the county also has a hazardous materials task force fully capable of responding to disasters. He questioned why the coroner's office would need Level-A suits.

"It's redundant; it's duplication of efforts," Sprewell said.

"There's no sense in risking firefighter lives for dead bodies," he said. Coroner's personnel "would only be let in to an area we have deemed safe."

Wilson said the coroner's office should at least be able to assist recovering bodies in small-scale emergencies.

The grand jury report also said the coroner's office lacks a list and criteria for temporary morgue sites in case of large disasters. The department has two refrigerated recovery units capable of holding 20 bodies each. To date, the coroner's office has not needed to go elsewhere for morgue sites, Campbell said.

If there were an incident with mass fatalities, such as those involving plane crashes or possible bioterrorism, the county office would have the assistance of nationwide Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Teams, officials said.