Defending Your Campus Against WMDs

Hospital, university and school security professionals can’t afford to just have good disaster response plans when weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) are involved. Understanding the various types that could be used, the kinds of risks a site could face and the appropriate preventive measures available can help campuses ward off an attack.

Chemical weapons are particularly effective because their vapors can quickly waft through the wind, causing immediate and usually horrible physical effects, such as suffocation, skin irritation, vomiting and eye damage. They can also be spread through the water.

What makes chemical agents not attractive to terrorists and other criminals is the fact that large quantities are required to have an effect. Additionally, chemical vapors can disperse in the wind or evaporate quickly, rendering them ineffective. Extra care must also be taken by a terrorist working with chemical agents because these weapons are extremely toxic and potentially lethal, especially if they’re mishandled.

Biological Agents Are Not Easily Detected
Like chemical agents, biological warfare agents can spread easily through the air. Biological weapons come in three general categories: Viruses, which include smallpox and encephalitis, among others; bacteria, such as anthrax and plague; and toxins, which include botulinum and ricin.

Some are derived from plants commonly found in nature. Ricin, for example, can be made from the waste left over from processing castor beans. Hospitals and research facilities also produce biological agents.

What makes biological weapons so attractive to terrorists is the fact that unlike chemical agents, which can be easily detected, viruses, bacteria and toxins are not easily traced. Also, very small quantities can have a significant and deadly impact.

These agents, however, don’t often appeal to terrorists because of their delayed effects. It is also difficult to produce or obtain this kind of agent, and a terrorist could die or be severly injured if he or she mishandles it.

Radiological Material Is Available on Many Campuses
Mishandling is also a significant risk for terrorists using radiological weapons. These materials can emit alpha particles, beta particles or gamma rays (the most powerful and potentially harmful of the three).

Generally, radiological materials can be found in research laboratories, hospital oncology units, industrial facilities or even home smoke detectors (although the level of radiation from these detectors is relatively harmless).

Security experts are most concerned with this type of material being used in radiological dispersal devices (RDD), or what are more commonly known as dirty bombs. RDDs are attractive to terrorists because they do not require weapons-grade fissionable material.

These devices are assembled by packing nuclear material around a conventional explosive. When a bomb detonates, it disperses the material over a wide area, possibly causing burns and poisoning. Long-term effects could include cancer and groundwater contamination.

Close cousins of radiological weapons are nuclear weapons, such as those used by the United States in World War II on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Japan. Despite their terrifying potential for destruction, they are difficult to manufacture without being detected. Nuclear weapons are also very expensive to make and difficult to transport.

Not All Campuses Have Equal Vulnerabilities
The variety and quantity of potential WMDs can be overwhelming, but before any hospital, school or college locks down its buildings in fear that a terrorist attack is imminent, it is wise to determine the actual risk. Budgets are tight, and resources need to be deployed effectively.

Campus security professionals must realize that not every school, hospital or university has the same exposure. Universities with high-profile events with large crowds, such as the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., would probably be smart to have tough security measures against WMDs. Organizers of a junior high school&rsqu
o;s annual choir concert with possibly 50 people attending probably would not need to worry nearly as much.

High-profile visitors such as foreign dignitaries or nationally known politicians who are controversial could increase an institution’s threat level.

Many universities and medical centers have research facilities on site that could also make them attractive targets for terrorists. A number of campuses have recently constructed or are in the process of erecting regional biological laboratories to deal with level three and level four biological concerns.

Nuclear research facilities at several universities could pose a significant risk, too, although this point is being hotly debated by those in the nuclear research field. Still, it would be wise to be on the safe side and harden any facilities containing these types of materials.

About the Author

Robin Hattersley Gray

Robin has been covering the security and campus law enforcement industries since 1998 and is a specialist in school, university and hospital security, public safety and emergency management, as well as emerging technologies and systems integration. She joined CS in 2005 and has authored award-winning editorial on campus law enforcement and security funding, officer recruitment and retention, access control, IP video, network integration, event management, crime trends, the Clery Act, Title IX compliance, sexual assault, dating abuse, emergency communications, incident management software and more. Robin has been featured on national and local media outlets and was formerly associate editor for the trade publication Security Sales & Integration. She obtained her undergraduate degree in history from California State University, Long Beach.

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