Abilene emergency teams prepared for outbreak

Health officials: more study required on bioterrorism

Thursday | October 11, 2001

By Jery Daniel Reed / Abilene Reporter-News

They weren't needed, but medical emergency teams from Abilene's hospitals and the public health unit were ready had an anthrax scare developed into a citywide emergency.

Hendrick Medical Center, Abilene Regional Medical Center and the Abilene-Taylor County Health Department each has a team drilled in handling crises such as a hazardous material spill or a deadly terrorist gas attack, like the one unleashed on a Tokyo subway several years ago.

Health unit personnel would have helped with triage - screening and classifying victims - at the hospitals, said health department nursing supervisor Janet Robillard, notified Tuesday night about a possible emergency at Abilene Christian University by the regional public health headquarters in Arlington.

"We just kind of stood by to see how things were going, to see if we would play an active role,'' she said.

City officials say steps taken by the Abilene police and fire departments, Dyess Air Force Base's hazardous material unit and Rural Metro Ambulance were sufficient after an anthrax scare at ACU prompted authorities to briefly quarantine 25 to 50 people in the school's administration building.

Authorities learned Wednesday that the scare was a false alarm.

Even so, the incident convinced local medical officials that a far better understanding of bioterrorism - including anthrax - is necessary, especially in the wake of America's military strikes against terrorist Osama bin Laden and his followers.

"We've had citywide and hospital drills on hazardous waste spills," said Hendrick Medical Center vice president Celia Davis. "But no one could've anticipated some kind of incident like what happened the other night."

In that sense, Davis said, Tuesday "gave us a good opportunity to look at our system and see what we need to do about an incident like this as opposed to a hazardous waste spill."

As an example, she said, in certain instances involving bioterrorism, the last thing emergency workers may want to do is wash off people who may have been contaminated "because it could go into the water supply."

Abilene Regional Medical Center spokeswoman Chris Proctor-Cleveland said hospital officials learned from Tuesday's scare.

"We discovered that even Abilene isn't immune from a biological threat," she said. "Actually, we had already assembled an internal team to review our disaster preparedness plan to see how it should be updated in light of the September 11 attack. That review will continue."

Davis said Hendrick must establish better communications with officials on the scene of a biodisaster. Hendrick officials monitored developments at ACU before deciding whether to assemble its own emergency team.

Further, Davis said hospital officials must ponder how to handle the normal flow of emergency room patients in addition to attack victims.

Robillard said health officials will continue learning more about anthrax and other biological and chemical weapons.

"We've been working on this for some time, being prepared for bioterrorism," she said. "The Texas Department of Health is working toward that goal, getting information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the city has developed a terrorist incident control plan that we're part of."

The plan is an addendum to the overall emergency plan developed by the city's office of emergency management. Coordinator Mark Whitton said the document is so new, "many of our own people don't know its contents yet."

In grading their emergency responses, Abilene police officials said they were pleased, but fire officials said the jury is still out.

"Considering it was a first-time event for all of us, I think it went reasonably well," said Lt. Mark Moore, a police department patrol commander. "It's something we've never dealt with before, never trained for."

While Moore was happy, he wishes the security perimeter around ACU's Hardin Administration Building, the quarantined area, had been more tightly enforced, and that the fire department's hazardous materials team has been called sooner.

An Abilene patrolman was sent to ACU about 5 p.m. and, while en route, talked to the ACU employee who called 911 from inside the Hardin building. He and a patrol supervisor decided to involve FBI agents, Abilene firefighters and more police, Moore said.

Five Abilene police officers worked with ACU security to guard the perimeter, which was established about 5:45 p.m. The fire department was called about 5:30 p.m. Moore said he did not know of any major breaches by the public into the cordoned area.

The Abilene Fire Department deployed more than 12 firefighters and four fire trucks, but an assessment of its actions was unavailable Wednesday, said Fire Chief Bob Putnam.

Putnam said the hazardous materials team was unable to critique the incident before going off-duty Wednesday morning. Assigned to the fire station near South 14th Street and the Winters Freeway, the group includes eight people and a truck specially fitted with equipment for handling chemical spills.

In addition to the city of Abilene's response, Dyess Air Force Base sent eight people and three vehicles from its fire department.

Capt. David Honchul, base spokesman, said the military played a "mutual aid" backup role, but was not used at the school.

Tuesday's incident at ACU's Hardin Administration Building was triggered because of a suspicious letter containing what some feared was a reference to anthrax. For two hours, health and law enforcement officials kept potentially infected people quarantined inside the building.

The deaths of 300,000 people in India in 1984 from a deadly gas leak at a Union Carbide plant first prompted national and local interest in preparing to deal with disasters caused by hazardous materials.

"We're going to be prepared for it," Robillard said after Tuesday's incident. "I don't know whether we're going to see a lot of these kinds of things in the future, but we're going to make sure we have all our ducks in a row."

Contact public affairs writer Jerry Reed at 676-6769 or reedj@abinews.com.


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