County drills in preparation for catastrophe

Nearly 400 people lined up at Randall Hall on the Clackamas Community College campus last week to assist local emergency response officials testing their ability to distribute emergency medicine following a terrorist anthrax attack.

'Everybody has different responsibilities, and you don't get very many opportunities to see how they all work together,' said Grady Wheeler, the information coordinator for the City of Milwaukie, who served as the lead public information officer during the exercise.

The 'point of distribution' on the CCC campus - referred to by officials as the POD - was connected to the county's Emergency Operations Center for the duration of the drill.

'The EOC is equipped to handle anything from an earthquake to a terrorist attack,' said Wheeler. 'We're testing how we can respond to a large group of people seeking medical attention.'

Organizers had hoped that 600 members of the general public would participate, to put a realistic burden on the 44 community health workers and volunteers staffing the event.

'You can't test the system unless you have people come out,' Wheeler explained. 'From my perspective, there is no other way to learn, except by going through conditions like this.

'Even though this is an exercise, the stress is very real, and it's the volunteers from the community that make it real.'

Communications breakdown

Despite a low turnout, the exercise was a success, according to Lt. Mike Conrad of the Oregon City Police Department, who served as the POD manager.

'It's good to get the different jurisdictions together - the health department has put together a good exercise, and I can't say enough about how good the college has been to work with,' he said. 'The attitude of the people coming through has been really good, too. We even sent some of them through twice to maintain the flow.'

To simulate the type of problems that might occur during a real emergency, the organizers shut down all telephone, pager and fax messages flowing between the POD and the EOC for a time, forcing officials to rely on their 800-MHz radios, as well as volunteer HAM radio operators to keep in contact.

'One of the most important lessons I learned is about communications and sharing information,' said Wheeler. 'With so much happening all the time, it's hard to stay in front of it. You're always playing catch-up.'

The POD was set up inside a large gymnasium, divided into three separate spaces by hanging curtains. In the first area, new arrivals were handed a clipboard with a simple form to fill out, listing the members of their family who need medication and gathering basic medical information.

At the second stage, the form is reviewed by a screener, who seeks to identify people with drug allergies or who are pregnant. Finally, in the third area, the members of the public are provided with 'medicine' - in this case, a plastic vial filled with M and Ms.

'At the one-hour mark, the wait time was ranging between two minutes and 10 minutes,' said Conrad. 'That's not bad at all.'

Mike Cardwell, a city worker with West Linn, was among the participants.

'I'm just here for school and I saw the signs, so I just wandered through,' he said. 'It was interesting - it went very smoothly, and everyone answered the questions I had.'

Next up: bird flu

The drill was the first of its kind in Clackamas County, according to Deborah Mills, who directed the exercise.

'Overall, it went really well. I think the lessons we learned were the details and the communications issues that take place inside a POD,' she said. 'We developed some excellent relationships, and we're now better prepared if the county ever needs to operate a POD for real.'

Watching from the background, Chief Frank Grace of the Gladstone Police Depart-ment served as the principal evaluator for the drill.

'You have to start someplace, and this is a great place to start,' said Grace. 'I'm the emergency manager for Gladstone, and I volunteered because the more I learn here, the more I can share with my community.'

Also watching over the exercise was Adrienne Donner, who works in the five counties that include the Portland metropolitan area as the regional cities readiness initiative coordinator, funded by the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.

'My job is make sure that we are ready to mass medicate the entire population in 48 hours, if we had to,' she said. 'The different counties are at varying levels of readiness, but I think we could do it.

'Clackamas has been doing a lot of exercises recently, bringing all the different jurisdictions together.'

Barring an actual terrorist attack or pandemic, the next large-scale test of the county's public heath system will come in November, when a state-wide exercise will simulate a widespread outbreak of avian influenza.

'Every county across the state and all hospitals except two are participating,' said Donner.

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