Anthrax Scares Kept Local Fire Departments On Their Toes

The numbers tell the story. Harrison County rescue crews responded to more than 60 suspicious powder calls this week. Hazardous materials teams in Hancock and Jackson Counties also dealt with their share of anthrax threats.

It's been a long week for the people charged with saving lives. Just ask Mark Ballman. "Hectic. Very hectic," the Gulfport fireman said. "We've run more calls in the course of the last four days than we did in the last two years probably."

On more than 20 occasions, Gulfport had to break out protective suits and other hazmat equipment to check out white powdery substances found around the area.

"Actually had to get some of this equipment air freighted in because we were running out," Ballman said. "We were getting to the point where if we would have had any more calls, we may have been out of equipment. So we were behind the eight ball on this whole deal."

Because of all the anthrax calls Gulfport received this week, the fire department assigned two people a shift specifically to hazmat detail. That cost the city overtime pay.

"Cost is a factor," Gulfport fire chief Pat Sullivan said. "We have to buy these suits. We have to pay these men overtime. We have to do all the things we have to do. And it costs us money to do it."

Just to be safe, Harrison County's E-911 commission revised its public safety guide for responding to biological and chemical threats. That helped firemen understand what to do with a potential anthrax emergency. Sullivan said, "We're educating everybody and we're educating the public. And I think we're getting a handle on it and getting back to a normal lifestyle."

That normal way of life was noticeable at central fire station. Saucier head start kids got to hang out with Gulfport firemen. Back at station 12 in North Gulfport, rescue crews restocked their depleted hazmat response trailer.

"The main point here," the chief said, "is that we need to life a normal lifestyle. We can't allow terrorism to alter our entire life."

Chief Sullivan estimates that this week's anthrax scare cost his department about $10,000 in overtime pay and new equipment. Biloxi fire chief David Roberts said the same thing. A week of anthrax threats cost his department $10,000 in new equipment.