Last night [Aug. 24, 2006], I attended “Emergency Preparedness – Homeland Security & Avian Bird Flu Event” hosted by State Representative Terry Parke. I had low expectations for the even going into it, expecting a lot of back-patting between politicians and a photo op, but that was not the case at all. This was a genuinely informative seminar with a crack panel of knowledgeable speakers who had to answer to an audience that was enthusiastic about learning more.
Terry Parke opened the panel discussion by bringing up the Streamwood microburst event of 1990 (http://www.crh.noaa.gov/ilx/trivia/juntriv.php, scroll down to June 29, 1990). That immediately piqued my interest because the event had occurred long enough ago that I did not think of that in terms of “emergency preparedness,” but it highlighted that the need for emergency preparedness at the local level is not a recent trend.
Mayor Roth made some remarks that were uninteresting. She brought nothing to the panel and was just there to be seen.
Dr. Stephen Martin, Jr., Director of the Cook County Dept. of Public Health (http://www.cookcountypublichealth.org/), did not have specific information to share (leaving that for the people under him), but did want to set the tone for the evening. He stressed that this was not the government “b.s.”ing people, but that they were there to give us the facts “straight up”. His combination of polished grammar and street talk lingo could only have come from Cook County, but may not have made the best impression here in the suburbs.
Luckily, Dr. Catherine Counard, Assistant Medical Director for Communicable Disease Control, gave most of the details for Dr. Martin. Nature called and I missed some of her part of the presentation, but the emphasis on the second half of her presentation was on sustained recovery (As Dr. Martin would say afterward, in the case of a pandemic, “The government will get everything right in the first 15 minutes. That’s the easy part; the hard part is the months of recovery that it will take afterward.”). She talked about the difference between seasonal flu and avian flu. Cook County has dispenser sites ready to give shots for a medical emergency, one site for every 50,000 people in the county. Unfortunately, there is no vaccine for avian flu. President Bush has funded a new vaccine initiative (http://arstechnica.com/journals/science.ars/2005/11/2/1706), but she conceded that such research will take 8-10 years. No indication was given how the county’s dispenser sites would be useful in the meanwhile.
Robert (I did not catch his last name), Special Agent for the F.B.I. Joint Terrorism Task Force, was a charismatic speaker, but with little specific information (he conceded jokingly that too much of it is classified or sensitive) to give us. The joint task force is the fourth largest field division of the FBI, which now emphasizes prevention post-9/11. “Forensic microbiology” is an area in which the FBI can aid local government in an emergency, citing a little-publicized case where subversives tried to influence an election by infecting the local populace with salmonella – by spraying it from bottles on buffet diner food – so they would be too sick to vote. He also emphasized, and others would reaffirm this after, that Illinois is ahead of many other states in terms of emergency preparedness.
Lt. Mike Marchese, Emergency Coordinator for the Schaumburg Police Dept., was a surprise. Though a mild, unenthused speaker, he was quite knowledgeable and web-savvy enough to be a librarian! He referred us to www.ready.com, a new site Homeland Security has put together, and told us about a Homeland Security video called “The Seven Stages of Terrorism” – which you can watch from the Schaumburg Police web site (http://www.ci.schaumburg.il.us/vos.nsf/schaumburg/JSCP-6R9RMF)!
Commander Randy Hart, Terrorism Liaison for the Streamwood Police Department, read from his notes. He spouted a lot of terms and acronyms at us very quickly, but I jotted down what I could. Streamwood is a member of the Illinois Statewide Terrorism Task Force (http://www.illinoishomelandsecurity.org/ittf/ -- another place you can watch that “7 Stages” video!). It has coordinated with the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and been compliant with NIMS’ uniform protocols since 2002 (http://www.nimsonline.com/nims_3_04/index.htm). It is a member of the Major Crime Task Force (MCTF) that allows its member communities to share resources and emergency manpower. The Streamwood police have joined the fire department as members of the Illinois Law Enforcement Alarm System (ILEAS)(http://www.ileas.org/). Also, we learned from him that Streamwood plans to have two squad cars equipped with live video feeds (ostensibly so HQ can make faster and better decisions, but can footage of Streamwood DUIs on the TV show “Cops” be far behind?).
Next was Dr. Anna Ruman, a vet who is also an Assistant Bureau Chief for the Ill. Dept. of Agriculture. She returned our focus to avian bird flu and stressed how extremely unlikely it is that avian bird flu will become the next pandemic, despite its media sensationalism. She explained that avian bird flu was nothing new – that the last U.S. outbreak had been in Texas as recently as 2004 (http://www.cdc.gov/flu/avian/outbreaks/past.htm). That if a highly pathogenic strain of bird flu reached the U.S., it would most likely show up first in the poultry industry. The poultry industry has its own plan for avian flu outbreak and would alert the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture immediately if it happened. They would have no motive to cover it up and save a bunch of ten-cent chickens that they can just slaughter and replace (I hoped she was not being literal about the ten-cent chickens, as they cost me $2 or more at the grocery store). Further, the Ill. Dept. of Agriculture routinely tests samplings as large of 8,000 birds of the Illinois bird population for disease.
Linda Reimel of the Ill. Dept. of Public Health and Regional Coordinator for Emergency Medical Services started out speaking strongly, but lost her nerve somewhere in mid-speech and seemed to almost be in tears by the end of it. Emergency Medical Services (http://www.emsresponder.com/), she explained, was the medical equivalent of MCTF. All county health departments in the state were coordinated through it. Hospitals can share their equipment and medicine statewide. Ambulance services, hospitals, and fire departments in Illinois are both EMS- and NIMS-compliant. She repeated that Illinois is ahead of other states. Louisiana did not have EMS coordination before Hurricane Katrina.
The last speaker on the panel was JoAnn Foley from Sherman Hospital. She was a spirited speaker, stressing more than anything family preparedness. She gave us advice such as “update your plan,” “know your neighbors’ emergency needs,” “stay three feet away from someone who is sneezing,” and “wash your hands often.” “Do not wait until an emergency to volunteer – get training earlier!” Parke added that every family should have a second emergency location for if home is the source of the emergency. As to professional emergency preparedness, she explained how Illinois is divided into 11 regions each with a “pod,” or head disaster, hospital in charge of coordination (“pod” is actually not an acronym, but refers to “like peas in a pod”). Sherman Hospital is our region’s pod hospital. Volunteer help will be important during a pandemic because absenteeism during a pandemic could be as high as 40%. Hospitals may restrict visitors to two trained adults, or open alternate care facilities when the hospitals fill up. For more information, she referred us to CDC (http://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic/healthprofessional.htm) and the Ill. Dept. of Public Health (http://www.idph.state.il.us/avianflu.htm).
Some things came up during the question and answer session afterward. Sanitation, water, and other local departments all coordinate now just like the police and fire departments. Citizen Corps (http://www.citizencorps.gov) was recommended for homeland security volunteer programs and we were told by people in the audience that Arlington Heights, Elgin, and Palatine all have corps councils (for a complete list, see http://www.citizencorps.gov/citizenCorps/allCouncilList.do#IL).
Most of the information the police departments receive from the FBI is either classified, sensitive, or not considered of interest to the general public. What little is left is fed down to the public only through the police department’s press book. This was my question, and the Streamwood police commander spoke to me privately afterwards that he thought it would be a good idea for the police to offer this information more quickly to the public through a listserv or RSS feed.
Someone said more needs to be done to educate the public about these issues and that pamphlets need to be delivered to every homeowner. Terry Parke tried to put it politely that everyone on the panel was underfunded to do something like that. I resisted the urge to stand up and mention how much of this information is available from your local library, but did speak to Parke afterward about how the library could have been contacted in advance about this event and we could have showed up with all manner of documents on the subject and maybe even arrange on-site checkout. Parke politely asked me if I knew he was responsible for me having the job I have now and left it at that. But I did get my picture taken with him.
Last tidbits gleaned from the Q&A were – quarantine will likely not be attempted on a large scale during a pandemic. Unincorporated areas are covered by county emergency services. Emergency preparedness drills are federally mandated, with both field and “table top” drills. “We need to change how we make vaccine in our country” was the mantra of several panel members and some work in that area is already done. The USDA has developed a test for bird flu that can be ran in three hours instead of the two weeks it used to take.