After 30 years in the fire service, the last six as a hazmat tech for the state of Ohio, I thought I was pretty sharp about dealing with hazardous materials. Then I transferred to the Health Department as an emergency response coordinator. Then 9/11 happened. Suddenly I needed to know a whole lot about some things that I knew very little about. My colleagues at the health department needed to know about response too. So the die was cast and we forged ahead.
We had been dealing with Anthrax Scares for a while before 9/11. Whoever the idiots are that call in bomb threats decided that it would be neater to call in an anthrax threat. The caller had no idea what anthrax was but it sounded pretty cool. Unfortunately, they found very quickly that none of the responders knew what it was either or how to deal with it. The “one size fits all” approach to decontamination that had been used up to this point seemed a bit cumbersome for something that might kill you within 72 hours if not treated.
After fumbling around with these types of incidents, one at a time, for about a year, it became evident that there needed to be a protocol at the state level and hopefully it would filter down at some point. Assembled for the initial meetings were the Ohio Department of Health, Ohio Highway Patrol, Ohio EMA and the FBI. In 3 or 4 meetings we banged out a protocol that would allow the state to deal with an anthrax or any biological scare swiftly and efficiently and give the counties the help they needed. Through the EMA, local health departments, fire and EMS, and law enforcement agencies, the Ohio Protocol for Handling Biological Incidents was put on the street, and it worked. The state gained the ability to gather the samples from the locals, transport them quickly to the lab in Columbus and have an answer confirming or denying the presence of b. anthraces in about 24 hours. It still works very well for a one on one basis.
And then it happened
9/11 was the “day that will live I infamy” for sure. In the aftermath of that terrible day other things began to happen. People were scared and without being educated on anything remotely linked to terrorism, the mention of Anthrax by the news media sent people heading for shelter. And it did happen, anthrax scares in many parts of the country. In Columbus Ohio during the 30 day period that came after the first “white powder” scare, there were 487 responses to “white powder” type incidents and over 30 bomb threats. Since most fire departments protocol for handling an unknown substance brought out the hazmat troops in force, some responses were very thin.
Your New Best Friend
It became apparent that there needed to be a better knowledge base for responders to get information from. Additionally public health was now in a position that the needed some type of response mechanism. Meetings between fire, police and public health brought out a new understanding about their new mutual problem and planners rushed to fix response mechanisms that were outdated or nonexistent, overnight. A call for white powder no longer brought a full hazmat response and decon of everyone in the building. A better approach which showed the understanding that responders had gained had them collecting samples and sending people to get medical attention if there was any suspicion of a problem. By now, if your health commissioner isn’t your new best friend, stop by the health department and get acquainted.
No Sense at all
The response didn’t get any better, people still called about things that had been around them for years. One caller noticed that there was a white powder in the bottom of the tissue box and wondered if it might be anthrax. Another found a white powder in the flour aisle at Kroger’s. The list was endless with over 2000 separate items sent to the State Lab for analysis and 2000 of them being negative for anthrax.
Ten years later
And so here we are, ten years later. Have we forgotten everything we learned about biological incidents? What did we learn?
Here’s the straight scoop. A biological incident is a Class 6 Hazmat Incident. It has major repercussions for police, fire and EMS. These things can make people sick. They can make police officers, firefighters and medics sick. When that happens who will pick up the slack? Biological incidents come in many forms. It could be a deliberate threat like anthrax. Maybe it will be a food borne illness. It is very important that public safety bosses know what each one of these problems brings with it. Responding to the increase in medic runs is only half of the battle. At any given time during the height of an incident such as pandemic flu, one third of the uniformed force may be out. This means shutting down apparatus or even whole fire stations, fewer cruisers on the street, medics overworked. This means having a good Continuity of Operations Plan. Mutual aid won’t do much good when they are all in the same boat as you.