Chemical Reaction

What you don't know may hurt you when dealing with a chemical, radiological or biological threat.

by / April 16, 2002
Chemical, radiological and biological threats don't receive a lot of attention in this country even though they might be more of a threat than people realize. This lack of awareness has left public safety officials and doctors ill equipped to respond to these types of disasters.

Does it have to be this way? Training courses on how to deal with chemical, radiological and biological disasters are available, but they're expensive and some emergency managers at the local level complain that courses that carry the detail necessary to aid state and local governments are scarce.

The problem, according to Kern Wilson, emergency coordinator in Tampa, is that most of the training courses available are developed at the federal level and lack sufficient detail to implement on the local level. Wilson said the feds don't make them available in a format they can use.
"A lot of these systems are very, very general. General in a sense that they use a lot of buzzwords," he said. "We look at it and say, 'Good concept. Now how can we take that concept and apply the details at our level?' When it gets to our level there's so much detail lacking it's ridiculous.

"If you look at the FEMA Web site, it's great for the citizens, but as far as emergency managers go, people who have to manage disasters, there isn't a thing on the web site we could use," Wilson said.

The vendor community is beginning to address the issue. C2 Technologies has worked with state and local governments in Virginia; Tampa, Fla.; Michigan; and the District of Columbia. The company worked closely with former Gov. Jim Gilmore, who wanted to put Virginia on the map in terms of disaster preparedness. But the company works mostly with the big boys in federal government, including FEMA, the Department of Transportation, the FAA, the Department of Treasury, the Department of Education, the Air Force, the Navy and the Army.

The company provides disaster preparedness training courses, some of which are available in CD-ROM and Web-based formats.

Three years ago, C2 prepared a series of exercises for about 6,000 jurisdictions around the country that analyzed the readiness of communities to respond to a disaster. Still, C2 founder and CEO Dolly Oberoi is dismayed at the lack of readiness. "My question on Sept. 11 was, 'What happened to all that training? Why was our response so poor?' This is something we had been anticipating," she said.

A Variety of Formats

C2 landed a contract 13 years ago to train FEMA in disaster preparedness and disaster management. FEMA is still C2's largest client but the company has since expanded its client base and the breadth of its training.

"We started out as a small training company and have emerged as an enterprise-wide provider," Oberoi said. "By that I mean we go into enterprises and we look at their workforce and needs, and from there we develop competencies and training models and, as a result, we end up working for the whole enterprise. We do the strategic human-resources-management component, the e-learning component and then the IT functions for the organization."
When the District of Columbia was shaken a few years ago by the fear that some abandoned suitcases might contain anthrax, they called C2 to improve the district's level of preparedness. C2 conducted a series of tri-state exercises that involved police, fire and emergency-management offices from Virginia, Maryland and the district. "We sort of coordinated how they could work in unison in response to incidents of mass destruction," Oberoi said.

C2 helped Virginia when Gov. Gilmore wanted to become a leader in preparedness training.

"We analyzed their current capabilities, did vulnerability analysis, identified their needs and then developed and devised emergency- and response-management plans," Oberoi said. "Then we developed and implemented multi-crises management programs that were both development programs and maintenance programs."

Development of a disaster preparedness program that maintains its capabilities during myriad threats is key because it's difficult to anticipate what might occur.

Another key is being able to quickly diagnose whether a patient has been hit with a chemical or radiological agent, which many doctors are not prepared to do now.

"Everybody is looking to see anything unusual, but they don't have the knowledge of what to look for," Mohammed Akhter, executive director of the American Public Health Association recently told the Washington Post. "Your eyes won't see what the mind doesn't know. Most of us have not seen these exotic, tropical-type diseases in this country."

C2 provides disaster preparedness and training programs in a variety of formats, including CD-ROMs and DVDs, that help communities analyze their current capabilities, vulnerabilities and needs. The programs train first responders (police, fire) and public health personnel and doctors in diagnosing and responding to terrorism and disaster-related health risks.

FEMA receives the master copy of many of the training courses, and mass-produces them for other audiences, like state governments. FEMA and C2 collaborate on developing course materials that state or local government public safety officials can deliver to their employees, according to Bernice Zaidel, FEMA course manager.

"We [FEMA and C2] try to package the information so that it's not dependent on a FEMA [representative] always being the instructor," she said. The CD-ROM courses and the Web-based courses can allow state and local officials to train personnel without expensive road trips.

Real-Time Feedback

C2's latest training tool is a CD/DVD-ROM, "Chemical, Biological & Radiological Terrorism Training," that includes interactive video scenarios and extensive databases on the symptoms of more than 30 warfare agents. The user can operate the system through a palm, a laptop or a wearable computer that is offered with voice recognition and satellite connectivity. This system offers real-time feedback for someone on a disaster site who may need more information on the nature of the threat. The program was developed for the Naval School of Health Sciences and is expected to be available for private sale in the near future.

The company spent years building a database for biological, chemical and radiological agents that are used in warfare, such as anthrax, nerve gas and botulism. The company is currently developing treatment models for treating anthrax, small pox and other radioactive materials.

The most likely scenario to which most communities would have to respond is a chemical explosion or spill, and there are a whole set of variables tied to knowing how to respond.

"They have a very high accident rate," Oberoi said of chemical plants. "There is a better chance of having a chemical explosion than a hurricane." She said chemical explosions are sometimes covered up by companies that want to keep the community in the dark about what's going on within the confines of the building. "We were doing a lot of work for the chemical industry but we stopped because of liability issues," she said.

Another potential threat to communities is the occurrence of chemical or radiation leaks from trucks or even hospitals. "It happens more frequently than you would realize," Oberoi said. C2's training covers first response to these situations and also how hospital workers can keep victims of contamination from infecting an entire hospital.

Zaidel said FEMA distributes a CD-ROM developed by C2 that is especially useful for first-responders to a radiological disaster. "The primary target audience would be fire services, as well as law enforcement and emergency medical services," she said.

Budget Woes

When you get down to why so many communities that are at risk are not taking advantage of training, it's the same old song and dance, according to Oberoi: not enough money. "What is ironic is that we have attended conferences, and I personally have spoken at many as well, and the people we meet there are not federal agencies they are local jurisdictions-a policeman, the fire chief-and they all say the same thing: they don't have the money for implementation."

C2 offers intense training seminars that can cost anywhere from $10,000 for a workshop for a 500-population jurisdiction to $300,000 or more for a more sophisticated system.

"There is a gap between the local, state and federal levels and the local level always complains that they don't have enough funds. It never trickles down to them," Oberoi said.

"We fight to get the resources for the things we need," said Tampa's Wilson.

In Tampa, city managers have taken things into their own hands and formed a caucus to share ideas on building their own systems. "I just got through putting in a request for funds so that we could find somebody to help us pull together these systems into an information management system," Wilson said.