Originally created 10/30/04

Heath officials rave over area's emergency plans



With the hood still in its bag, the odd-looking hose and power pack belted to Lt. Tim Walker's waist look more like parts of a leaf blower than a device to battle bioterrorism.

But the protective breathing mask that Rural/Metro ambulance workers recently received is a small but integral part of how the Augusta area would respond to such an attack or other large-scale disasters. And it is garnering public health officials national attention.

The East Central Health District is one of eight Advanced Practice Centers in the country. The centers form and implement plans that might become models for others across the country. The programs are funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention through the National Association of County and City Health Officials.

"One way of looking at them is as a laboratory for CDC, and through us, (be) able to get that information out to local health departments throughout the country," said Patrick Libbey, the executive director of the association. "We are trying to establish one of those in every region in the country, plus one that has a particular emphasis or ability that we can learn from in dealing with rural communities. East Central is filling that role."

The district, working with the Department of Emergency Medicine at the Medical College of Georgia, will receive $500,000 a year for three years to further that work.

The 13-county health district also was recently chosen to compete for a Project Public Health Ready designation for being prepared to respond to disasters, one of 31 picked across the country out of more than 180 applicants, said Mr. Libbey, whose group oversees the program.

DeKalb County also has an Advanced Practice Center, which makes Georgia unusual, and was also selected to try for a Public Health Ready certification, said Dave Brown, an emergency preparedness specialist with the Augusta health district and its project officer for Public Health Ready.

Augusta, however, is one of only four in the country that is trying to certify a whole region as disaster-ready, and health district Director Frank Rumph wants to see all 13 counties qualified, Mr. Brown said.

"How do you build capacity? That's the whole issue of rural public health readiness," he said.

"When you don't have the infrastructure, you don't have the funds, you don't have the staffing you would at a major metropolitan area. You have to be very creative in how you approach things," he said.

Some of those endeavors have been easier in the rural counties - most of the 350 volunteers in the Medical Reserve Corps are from outside the Augusta area.

That group of mainly retired nurses and health care workers would be mobilized to back up other health care workers in a disaster or handle the Strategic National Stockpile of drugs or vaccines that would be mobilized in the event of a terrorist attack or catastrophic outbreak, said Preston Harpe, the volunteer resources coordinator for the district.

"When you talk about breaking down a planeload of (drugs or vaccines), you're going to need warehouse people, truck drivers, forklift operators; you're going to have to have people who can answer telephones, help crowd control," he said. "So we're taking anybody who wants to work on it, with an emphasis on retired personnel."

Those reserves also could serve as first-responders in the event of a disaster. And if there is a disaster, that local response is critical, Mr. Libbey said.

"In essence, all emergencies are local," Mr. Libbey said. "They occur in a community. So particularly in a biologic or a health issue, how quickly it is detected and the quality of that first response are probably the two largest determinants in how well and how quickly it is going to be contained and managed."

The Augusta area, he said, is ahead of the game.

Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213 or tom.corwin@augustachronicle.com.

Augusta health authorities are getting national recognition for plans and preparation to deal with mass disasters, such as a terrorist attack. The plans might be used across the country.