One week after the Sept. 11, 2001 al-Qaeda terrorist attacks, letters with anthrax powder were mailed to several news outlets and two U.S. Senators’ offices. These bioterrorist acts killed five people and made 17 others sick. They made thousands of people fearful that white powder found in their homes, cars or public buildings might be anthrax. Many called their local health departments for help. Nearly every health department in the country took these calls and sent employees to look into the reports and collect samples.
Because nothing like this had happened before, health departments had no procedures or training and little protection to deal with anything so potentially dangerous. Despite their lack of training and because their mission is to protect the public’s health, health department employees did not hesitate to address the public’s concerns.
Fortunately, almost all of the calls from citizens were false alarms. But this experience uncovered a new area of responsibility for local health departments — emergency response.
Leading up to this, health departments had been seriously underfunded and unprepared to respond to terrorist attacks. For example, in September 2001 most small health departments had only a few computers, if any. Those computers could log onto the Internet, but only through a dial-up connection, which also tied up their office phone lines. Staff members were not trained in emergency response and had few, if any, written emergency plans or procedures.
On Nov. 25, 2002 the Department of Homeland Security was created to improve our nation’s response to terrorism. Federal grants were given to equip, train, and prepare first response agencies including health departments to take action during emergencies.
Since then health departments have greatly improved the ability to quickly work to protect health and save lives during a disaster and to instruct people how to keep themselves safe. Plans have been developed, practiced, revised and tested again. Staff members have received training. Necessary equipment and supplies have been purchased including technology systems. Communications and partnerships with other organizations are stronger than ever. The progress that local health has made was evident in the response to the H1N1 flu outbreak in 2009-2010.
Each year the health department reviews and updates its emergency plans. These plans address all types of hazards that could happen in Madison County. They include severe weather like tornadoes, floods, ice storms, and blizzards; major disease outbreaks like pandemics; bioterrorism attacks like the anthrax letters; hazmat spills; water or air pollution; earthquake; civil unrest; and utility outages.
The health department’s updated Emergency Response Plan is posted its website at http://co.madison.oh.us/health/
Sensitive information has been blacked out for security reasons. Note in the Table of Contents that this plan has many annexes (A-M) — each for a specific type of response. The annexes and many of the attachments and appendices are separate documents with detailed procedures and information.
If you would like to review any of these please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you have comments or suggestions about the Emergency Response Plan, let me know that as well, so that we can consider them for the next plan revision.
Pat Lentz, MPH is the Director of Emergency Preparedness at Madison County-London City Health District and can be contacted at email@example.com or (740) 852-3065, ext. 1525.