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Last Updated

14 Jul 2003

Source: Wall Street Journal, July 14, 2003


Al Qaeda and the Plaintiff's Bar


An al Qaeda WMD attack is likely within the next two years, warns a U.S. report to the U.N. made public last month. The report cautions that the terrorist organization may seek "softer targets of opportunity such as banks, shopping malls, supermarkets and places of recreation and entertainment."

Which reminds me: How did that terrorism-readiness exercise held recently in Chicago and Seattle turn out? TopOff-2, as the drill was called (for "top officials"), got a lot of advance publicity but not a whole lot after the fact. Under the exercise's mock scenario, Chicago was hit with a biological attack at the same time a dirty bomb went off in Seattle. The Department of Homeland Security says it is still sorting through the results and drawing conclusions, many of which will be classified.

But here are two early lessons learned: First, there can be no effective response without large medical teams at the ready. And second, that's not going to happen unless the issue of liability is resolved first. TopOff-2 helped show that there was no shortage of volunteers willing to assist victims of an attack -- provided they are protected from potential lawsuits.

Consider Kane County, Ill., whose fledgling volunteer medical reserve corps participated in the drill. The volunteer medical reserve corps is a new concept, thought up in the wake 9/11. In the days and weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, offers of aid poured in, but there were few organizations prepared to put volunteers to work.

The idea is for communities to recruit teams of local citizens to help provide information and basic medical services in a mass emergency, when first responders and hospitals are likely to be overwhelmed. The Bush administration last year issued 42 grants of about $50,000 each for three-year demonstration projects. Communities in 26 states are participating in the program, run out of the office of the U.S. Surgeon General. Applications are being taken for grants to set up medical reserve corps in 150 more communities.

Kane County's volunteer team is made up of medical professionals who are not designated first responders -- dentists, podiatrists, pharmacists, medics, veterinarians and RNs such as school nurses or retirees. In TopOff, their job was to set up a mass clinic to screen residents and hand out antibiotics to those who might have been exposed to pneumonic plague in mock attacks at O'Hare and other Chicago-area sites. Ten volunteers took part.

Kane County has more than 400,000 residents, and Laura Andersen, the team's coordinator, says several hundred volunteers could be needed in a real emergency. She could recruit plenty of help, she says, if the state had a better law giving volunteers immunity from lawsuits. Right now the only way her team can be activated (and get immunity) is if the governor declares a state emergency -- which Gov. Rod Blagojevich did in TopOff.

The problem here is recruitment. Many medical professionals have bitter personal experience with the tort system and are unwilling to volunteer unless they're protected from lawsuits. In a major emergency, they'd probably throw caution to the wind and come forward anyway, but the whole point of the reserve corps is to avoid a 9/11-type situation where there were plenty of volunteers but no way to organize them quickly.

The liability issue is "the biggest problem," says Craig Stevens, a spokesman for the Surgeon-General's office. His office is working with states on uniform legislation that would shield volunteers from lawsuits (the American Bar Association could help here). Good Samaritan laws, which only protect people who spontaneously offer help, don't apply. But they're a useful model. Illinois is crafting legislation that would provide immunity to medical volunteers in a wider range of emergencies. Florida and Oregon already have such laws.

This isn't the first time the liability issue has come up in the context of homeland security. Congress in April forestalled potential lawsuits over smallpox vaccinations by setting up a fund to compensate anyone who might be injured. Liability reform is an essential part of homeland security. Without it, more Americans are likely to die in a large-scale terrorist attack.

Ms. Kirkpatrick is the Journal's associate editorial page editor.