Originally created 11/15/02

No time to backtrack

If homeland security starts at home, then Richmond County has its work cut out. And the county is probably typical of most other counties and municipalities across the country.

Reviews of a Sept. 25 disaster drill are in, and the conclusion is that area hospitals aren't well enough equipped to handle the decontaminations that might be needed after a chemical spill or attack.

The critique takes on a renewed relevance after an FBI report of unconfirmed threats against hospitals in four U.S. cities. The threats were directed against Houston, San Francisco, Chicago and Washington, D.C., certainly, but it goes to show you how the terrorists keep moving the lines on us.

And it reinforces the need for local emergency and health officials to prepare and cooperate in the event of an attack.

It is a sad reality of modern life that public health officials, who once were concerned chiefly with immunizations and delivering basic health care to the poor, must now consider themselves anti-terrorist agents.

The local home front in the battle for homeland security also took a blow this week when Augusta Emergency Management Agency Director Dave Dlugolenski abruptly resigned - apparently in large part out of frustration with the county's lack of commitment to the cause.

One wishes that Dlugolenski might have given officials more notice. Yet, more unsettling still is the good man's lack of faith in the county's support.

This is certainly no time to scrimp on security or emergency preparedness. Fact is, our efforts must be ratcheted up.

Historically, the mission of emergency management/preparedness hasn't been enough of a priority, at least not since the days of air raids and Civil Defense warriors. In recent years, the role of emergency planning has been elevated, both by law and necessity.

But back then, plans were built primarily around the eventuality of accidental spills and such.

Now, although mishaps must still figure prominently into the mix, more emphasis has been assigned to the threat of intentional spills or attacks.

As if that weren't enough to worry about, county officials have one more hazard to think of: burnout.

Although Dlugolenski had legitimate outside interests - he also works for the U.S. Justice Department, training first responders in how to handle chemical and biological agents - it's a good bet the load placed on him here in Augusta was enough to inspire an end to his brief three-year tenure in the post. At one point he lost his only staff, and consequently, he said, was working 14- and 15-hour days.

He also was concerned, working in a job in which he felt "responsible for the lives of the people who live and work in Augusta," that if nothing else changed, the area is 10 to 15 years from being "where we should be right now" with regard to emergency management.

We can only hope his departure doesn't add to that.


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