New Jersey: The Biosecurity State?

Spurred by a CEO group, it's forming a defense plan built around corporate funds, workers, and equipment. Other states could follow

In the hours before dawn, three men cut through a fence at Port Newark and make their way to one of hundreds of shipping containers stored at dockside. Easily breaking the container's security seal, they remove several innocuous-looking boxes, each with deadly contents: Anthrax and other lethal bacteria produced in a foreign terrorist lab. Once outside the perimeter, the trio splits up and heads for office buildings and shopping malls in Newark, Hackensack, and Paramus, intent on sowing biological havoc.

In the above scenario, as the news of the contagion spreads, panicky crowds jam roads to understaffed hospitals with fast-depleting stockpiles of vaccines and medicine. Emergency vehicles trying to deliver medical supplies and hospital staffers are stuck in the chaotic traffic. A confused and angry public awaits instructions while thousands grow ill.


  Or consider an alternative: At first word of the attacks, New Jersey officials consult a database compiled by Automatic Data Processing (ADP ) and begin contacting a list of preregistered doctors, nurses, and technicians, directing them to hundreds of McDonald's, Subway, and Taco Bell restaurants. There, workers empty the refrigerators for the medications that quickly begin arriving on trucks donated by FedEx, UPS, and the Postal Service. Other volunteers direct traffic, compile medical histories, and translate for those unable to speak English. Locations for the drive-through clinics are read on the air and pinpointed on Web sites. A major health catastrophe is averted.

That's the vision behind a unique collaboration between private industry and New Jersey that may be adopted around the country. The idea: Get business to donate money, workers, equipment, and services to head off and respond to terrorist attacks. So far, Verizon Communications (VZ ), which handed out cell phones at Ground Zero to rescue personnel, and ADP have signed on. The other companies mentioned are being approached.

The New Jersey program, in its final stages of development, is the creation of Business Executives for National Security (BENS) and the state's Office of Counterterrorism. If successful, it could "serve as a template" for the rest of the country, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said when he approved the pilot program last December.


  New Jersey officials reacted skeptically when approached last year by BENS, a 20-year-old organization of public-spirited CEOs better known for advising the Pentagon on management reforms. But after the group promised $600,000 to local officials -- much of it from Morristown (N.J.) venture capitalist Raymond G. Chambers -- to fund a liaison office, Governor James E. McGreevey signed on.

Says BENS member Albert R. Gamper Jr., chairman and CEO of CIT Group (CIT ), a Livingston-based financial-services provider: "The further we get away from September 11, the more people tend to put off preparing for another terrorist attack, particularly when state budgets are tight and deficits are growing larger. But the governor understood we are serious."

Enlisting business volunteers and collecting cash contributions are considered vital because money from Washington has been slow in coming. President George W. Bush vetoed a spending bill last August that contained $150 million meant for first responders, citing its high cost. And the Administration's fiscal 2003 budget, which contains some $3.5 billion meant for state, county, and local efforts, has been stuck in Congress even though the fiscal year began four months ago. Kenneth A. Mayfield, president of the National Association of Counties, likens the dearth of federal dollars to "sending soldiers into battle without weapons or training."


  The shortfall led Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) on Jan. 24 to term homeland-security efforts by Washington "a myth written in rhetoric, inadequate resources, and a new bureaucracy." She released a survey of 48 local governments that showed that 70% had received no federal funding for beefing up local anti-terrorism coverage. By contrast, cities increased spending by $2.6 billion on security costs, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Why New Jersey for a pilot program? Few states are as target-rich. It's home to the nation's second-busiest container port, multiple passenger- and freight-rail lines, a major interstate truck route, Newark Liberty International Airport, 30 petrochemical-storage terminals, chemical plants, two nuclear plants, and much of the U.S. drug industry. And it has the haunting example of the Twin Towers disaster's aftermath when carpenters, plumbers, nurses, and dozens of people with needed skills, many from New Jersey, were delayed for security concerns.

"We're going to credential volunteers, have them on a Web site, list their skills, and match them to the job," says Josh Weston, former CEO and Chairman of ADP in Roseland. "If we need 50 bulldozers in Newark, we'll know just where to find them." The planning could also involve donations of hotel rooms, warehouses, and food, far outstripping services normally provided by the Red Cross or the Federal Emergency Management Agency.


  BENS chose to concentrate first on bioterrorism defense because bioweapons "are cheaper to develop and could create more panic and disrupt commerce more" than a radiological or chemical attack, says Charles G. Boyd, president of the Washington-based organization. A retired four-star Air Force general, Boyd was executive director of the Hart-Rudman National Security Commission that warned in January, 2001, that America lay "almost helpless" before the threat of terrorism. "In my view, the country will secure itself at the state and local level," he says.

The CEO group is also considering door-to-door food distribution for shut-ins and a backup network for the state's 911 emergency operators, who would likely be overwhelmed in any large-scale attack. And "mobile morgues" would use refrigerated trucks to handle mass casualties.

If that's not enough, Sidney J. Caspersen, director of New Jersey's year-old Office of Counterterrorism, has lots more problems to solve: Different fire and police departments in the state's myriad boroughs can't communicate with one another over a common radio frequency, for example. Regulator hoses at some fire departments can't fit on air tanks at others. Meanwhile, "money is a huge issue," he says. But just getting the database together of willing business volunteers is a big help, he adds.

So far, the BENS project is mostly on paper, but the fledgling Homeland Security Dept. is watching its development. If New Jersey provides a model for the rest of the country, it could boost state and local security efforts, save federal tax dollars, and maybe find a higher calling for fast-food joints.

By Paul Magnusson in Washington, D.C.

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht