By Jim Hopkins

SAN FRANCISCO - By most measures, small firms see grim times ahead in the wake of the terrorist attacks, according to a leading survey out today.

Small-business optimism has plunged to its lowest since 1993 in terms of hiring, growth and expectations that business will be better in 6 months, says the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), a leading trade group.

The findings are significant because they provide one of the first widespread looks at business conditions since the attacks. And they do not bode well for the economy, because small firms create most of the nation's new jobs.

Lawmakers have noticed. Rep. Nydia Velazquez , D-N.Y., a member of the House Small Business Committee, introduced small business disaster-relief legislation Tuesday. Her bill calls for low-interest or interest-free recovery loans, and for forgiving Small Business Administration loans to firms that are near bankruptcy. Sen. John Kerry , D-Mass., chairman of the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee, plans to introduce similar legislation Thursday.

Behind the gloomier outlook:

* Hiring. Just 6% of firms said post-attack that they plan to hire -- down from 18% in August, says the NFIB. It surveyed 500 firms in September. More than half responded after Sept. 11. Some firms are cutting jobs, especially in areas where tourism is key. In Phoenix, the Arizona Employers' Council, which advises 800 companies, is sending out three times as many packets on how to lay off employees compared with a year ago. Many cite the Sept. 11 attacks. "It's had a huge impact," says Amy Greathouse, acting president. "Some of them have never done a layoff."

William Dunkelberg, chief economist for the NFIB, says the decline in hiring plans is worrisome because it could affect economic growth. The nation's 5.6 million small employers -- those with fewer than 500 workers -- employ half of all workers and create about 75% of new jobs.

* Worsening business climate. Just 10% of companies in the NFIB post-attack survey say conditions will be better in 6 months -- down from 21% in August. Among the newly pessimistic: Gary Yamamura, a consultant to financial service, mass-transit and other industries who has three employees and 24 subcontractors. He expects the nation to be in a protracted war by next spring, raising consumer anxiety at a time of higher unemployment.

Yamamura's Los Angeles-area firm, Verifax Consulting, was vying for a project with a company based in the World Trade Center. The attacks sent that company scrambling for new offices, delaying the project as much as 2 years, Yamamura says.

* Softening sales. The number of firms expecting revenue growth in the near future fell 22 percentage points from August. Fairytale Brownies in Chandler, Ariz., a mail-order retailer of brownies, had expected sales to increase 50% this year. But the company, which had nearly $ 4 million in revenue last year, has trimmed that to 40%. Almost 1,000 people in its 275,000-person mail-order database were in the ZIP code areas that included the World Trade Center.