I once took a fire department class titled “Weapons of Mass Destruction.” Only half-jokingly the instructor gave us a cardinal rule for dealing with chemical or biological attacks: “Remove badge, mingle with crowd.” Whether we feel comfortable with it or not, we’ve tragically learned that police and firefighters are the first line of national defense against terrorism. The FBI and CDC can’t be everywhere, so they count on us to sort out well-intentioned panic from genuine calamity. Since Sept. 11, we’ve found ourselves holding a giant new bag of responsibilities and hazards. In particular, anthrax—or Amtrak, as people in Oakland perplexingly call it—has become one of our everyday calls like chest pain and car fires.
I have always been a false-alarm specialist, but lately I’ve been perfecting my craft. In between runs for house fires and gunshot traumas, my days are peppered with calls from people who think they may have a problem but don’t. Some buildings have alarms that trip twice a day; some people call 911 every time they have heartburn or headache. Of course, we’re firefighters and we’re bound to treat every call as legitimate until we arrive on scene and see otherwise with our own eyes. Now, in addition to the regular dry runs, every cough, blister, and letter from Florida is enough to justify a lights-and-sirens trip.
The city of Oakland has one round-the-clock hazardous materials team, eight firefighters with special training who have spent the last few weeks spread thin over the city prodding at every speck of drywall dust and non-dairy creamer. The initial tests for anthrax are decidedly hokey, like something from a Mr. Science Junior Chem Kit. In their bulky gloves and respirators, the haz-mat guys scoop up a little powder on a metal spatula, test the pH, check to see if it dissolves in water, and finally burn it to see if it chars or melts. If it looks like garlic powder and scores a certain way on the tests, our experts call in their experts.
Since we have only one haz-mat team, anthrax scares are initially handled by the rest of us. We’re not chemists, but we do have the benefit of being professionally calm. If it looks like sugar, and if it’s next to a sugar jar, then I’ll take a leap and say it’s sugar. I don’t like these calls at all. I want a problem that I can see and solve. Fire goes out when you spray water on it, doors open when you kick them. But dust is just dust, and with my level of training, the only thing I can truly monitor is the sniffle in my head and the pimple on my arm. Apart from the obvious worry of becoming infected myself, the slow, reasoned process of responding to a possible contamination goes against everything in my quick-fix firefighter’s mind.
We’ve been running on anthrax so often lately that I’ve had to consciously force myself to take each call seriously. When a run came for a mysterious package at the headquarters of a famous-brand local chemical company, we were laughing and casual as we carried our yellow caution tape down to the mailroom. In a corner of the room was a package with the distinctive red hatch marks of an overseas letter, no return address, excess postage, and a postmark that said simply “Baghdad.” It’s amazing how quickly real fear can creep up. I noticed myself breathing through pursed lips, as if taking shallow sips of air would be enough to keep the bugs out of my lungs. Eventually our beaker-toting, moon-suited haz-mat team arrived, opened the package, and announced that somebody in Iraq just really liked a particular brand of bleach made by the company and was hoping for a free sample.
Later that same day, one woman called because she started feeling sick after eating a doughnut that was dusted with “a mysterious white powder.” Which of course begs the question of why she ate it in the first place if she was feeling suspicious. Absurd panic or a diabolical plot to destroy America’s cops? These are the sorts of odd questions that this non-epidemic is forcing on us. I’ve seen six people shot to death this year; half that many have died from anthrax worldwide, and yet from the mansions to the homeless shelters, Oakland is alive with fear. One caller pointed nervously to a pile of baking soda in his tenement. Watching this man, with the dead eyes and needle tracks of a heroin addict, I could see just how deep our national worry has run. Thus far the targets have all been celebrities, politicians, and the people who handle their mail. And yet I can understand the logic that says: Tom Brokaw, Tom Daschle, now me.
Anthrax calls are the fireman’s job boiled down to the most elemental form: Here’s something lethal … you go touch it. Our world has changed immeasurably, and calls for anthrax scares are a reflection of the mood swings we’re all experiencing. I know that when I look to the sky I can’t help but plot a mental trajectory of all the planes I see: Are they headed for the airport or the downtown? Despite—or perhaps because of—our tremendous losses, firefighters have become as important for our symbolism as for our effort. I can’t fight anthrax; my lungs and skin are as weak as anybody’s. But I can do my best to muster outward calm, smile, pull down the caution tape and say: “It’s safe now. Go back to work.”