Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2007

Conference probes county’s disaster preparedness

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Public health and safety officials met Tuesday morning at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda to discuss what they will do in the event of catastrophic public health crises like pandemic flu or bioterrorism.

Officials from Montgomery County and Maryland joined their federal and mid-Atlantic counterparts to brainstorm solutions, but the daylong conference raised questions about whether a regional jurisdiction like Montgomery County could adequately react to a major disaster, or whether bureaucratic roadblocks seen during Hurricane Katrina would hinder operations.

‘‘There is a degree of angst about what the next issue would be, and it’s not ‘if,’ it’s ‘when,’” said Mike McAdams, assistant chief of the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service.

When planning for catastrophes like avian influenza or a large-scale anthrax terrorist attack, McAdams said administrators have to craft a strategy not only for getting medications from the national stockpile, but also for secondary issues like providing toilets and food for workers who distribute the medications to infected residents.

The chain of command in a major emergency is complicated by the melange of agencies and laws spanning multiple jurisdictions, according to regional and state officials at the conference.

In Montgomery County’s case, said McAdams, doctors report outbreaks to county public health officials, who report to the Office of the County Executive — continuing up to the governor, who could request federal emergency assistance.

‘‘You could almost think of it as pitch and catch,” said Matthew Minson, the director of preparedness and emergency response for Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. ‘‘If any of these steps don’t work, nothing works.”

Minson said every jurisdiction in Maryland ‘‘must have its own plans,” because emergency teams would respond differently in a more rural area like Frederick County versus the more urban Montgomery County.

‘‘We have an interim plan for dealing with influenza,” said Michael Love, division chief of Montgomery County Fire and Rescue.

In the hypothetical case of a pandemic flu infecting 10,000 residents in Montgomery County, McAdams said the Fire and Rescue Service would probably lose 10 percent of its force. To buttress its emergency response teams, he said the service would reduce or cut staffing to some units, screen workers for flu and rely on a volunteer crew system.

He said the county benefits from proximity to major health care facilities — the National Institutes of Health, Suburban Hospital and the National Naval Medical Center would add several hundred beds for sick patients, he said.

McAdams said the county’s response to the 2001 anthrax attack was smooth, without any wires crossed between the agencies involved. But he said the county has not confronted a major health and safety crisis like Hurricane Katrina.

He said ‘‘communications have increased” between Fire and Rescue Service and the Montgomery County Health Department.

But in the event of a disaster, it would take 72 to 96 hours for federal money and resources to reach Montgomery County, he said.

‘‘Take one small scenario, and it really builds up to something more complex,” McAdams said.