Valley emergency officials beef up readiness for biochemical attack

Authorities say plans are in place to respond to anthrax or other forms of biochemical attacks.
YOUNGSTOWN -- Anthrax. Even the word is strange and foreboding.
A month ago, it was the stuff of sci-fi movies. Government agencies planned a response to germ warfare, but the reality was unthinkable -- unbelievable to the average citizen.
That is, until the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Now, emergency planners are no longer drawing stares of disbelief. Everyone wants to know what they know, and if they are prepared.
Concern about anthrax, or some other deadly form of germ warfare, was heightened by its discovery last week in Boca Raton, Fla., where one man died.
The questions being asked are, "What to do," "where to go," "who to call" and "are we prepared" if it happens here.
The answers, say disaster preparedness leaders in Mahoning and Trumbull counties, are at once simple and incredibly complicated.
If there are several people with similar symptoms that aren't readily recognized, call 911 right away, said Walter Duzzny, director of the Mahoning County Emergency Management Agency. Such a 911 call will trigger a response from emergency services personnel who are trained to determine what level of response and treatment is needed, he said.
In reality, the same policies and procedures used for any natural disaster would be used for a military attack, including biochemical. If the symptoms are suspicious, the goal is to quickly identify, isolate and contain, Duzzny said.
The emergency would be treated as a worst-case scenario. Patients would be isolated at a medical facility. Family and others who had contact with the victims would be brought in for testing.
No experience: The situation would be further exacerbated by the unknown. Most disaster preparedness people have not had direct experience with massive biochemical disasters.
"That's the dilemma," Duzzny said. "Up until Sept. 11, we were just preparing protocols. Now that it is possible, it is no longer 'what if.' It has come a lot closer," he said.
Both emergency management agencies in Mahoning and Trumbull counties have developed working groups to deal with weapons of mass destruction. The groups include representatives from emergency service agencies, law enforcement, clergy, university, the military, amateur radio and the health-care communities.
"We're an all-hazards agency," noted Linda Beil, Trumbull County EMA director. "Whether it's nuclear, biological or chemical, were planning for it."
First response: "The people we have to key on are the first responders. Somebody has to go into the field and answer that 911 call," Duzzny said. And when they get there, they have to have some understanding of what they are dealing with.
In Mahoning County, the fire chief in the area where the attack occurs will be the commander, and EMA will mobilize the working group that will provide the necessary support.
"Given the potential threat, the entire issue will have to be addressed right when it happens. We can't let it escalate before we ... put everybody and everything we have into high gear as quickly as possible," Duzzny said.
He noted emergency personnel are ready to respond at the level they are trained, but said more training is needed to identify and treat whatever they have to deal with. Also, he said, new and better specialized equipment is needed.
Hospitals: At the hospital level, Dr. Larry Woods, chairman of internal medicine and director of critical care medicine at St. Elizabeth Health Center, said additional training is under way right now, including hazardous materials training and handling and treating contaminated victims.
Dr. Woods, also a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserve at Vienna, said Humility of Mary Health partners is developing rapid response teams involving St. Elizabeth and St. Joseph hospitals that are pretty close to being a reality.
The main point, containment and treatment, starts at the scene. If a mall becomes contaminated, the situation starts out there before victims get to the hospital. It really becomes a county public health venture, Dr. Woods said.
Rick Setty, director of environmental services for Mahoning County Health Department, said the county health department worked closely with EMA to develop a public health addendum to the Mahoning County Disaster Services Plan.
Regarding anthrax, Setty said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is not recommending that citizens take extraordinary steps such as hoarding antibiotics or buying a gas mask. "A wide range of biologicals could be used in an attack, and no single magic bullet is going to take care of you at any point in time," Setty said.
Tim Settles, director of emergency services from the Trumbull County Chapter of the American Red Cross, agreed.
"It's basically like preparing for any other disaster," he said.
The agency has been getting phone calls from people afraid of a biological or chemical attack.
"It's a good idea to have a three- to four-day supply of nonperishable food on a shelf and bottled water on hand," Settles said.
Keeping a first-aid kit, flashlight and battery-operated radio or television, and having a predetermined meeting place for family members who are away from home also are good ideas.
If there has been a shortfall in weapons-of-mass-destruction planning, it is the lack of rapid dissemination of intelligence information. "If somebody finds out something about an issue that affects Mahoning County, they better tell us right now," Setty added. "I'm confident we have competent officials here to handle the information and do something about it."