As U.S. officials consider the forms future terrorist attacks might take, bioterrorism is high on their list. Only Florida is currently prepared to receive and distribute life-saving medications quickly, and in quantity, in case deadly viruses or chemicals are released into its communities.
That's why what has been called 'The Mother of All Bioterror Disaster Drills' is about to take place in Tucson, Arizona. Its real name is the Tucson Metropolitan Medical Response System Bioterrorism National Pharmaceutical Stockpile Mass Dispensing Site Conference and Statewide Exercise.
Terrorism comes in many forms, from a lone sniper whose single bullet can spell death, to large-scale mass mayhem from explosion and fire. Even deadlier are the quiet killers, silent and invisible enemies called bioterrorism… death in a chemical or viral form.
To plan for such attacks, hundreds of residents in this southwestern desert town are holding a realistic 3-day practice scenario. Disaster Drill Director Les Caid, project manager for the Metropolitan Medical Response System (MMRS), says "MMRS is our local response to a disaster, terrorist or man-made, prior to any federal response showing up. So what we're trying to accomplish with our conference and statewide exercise is a scenario that would mimic a bioterrorism event."
Responders in other Arizona cities will play a part in the exercise, but Tucsonans, like Health Department bioterrorism coordinator Bryn Bailer, play the major roles. "There aren't going to be choppers flying overhead and people strewn about and sirens, it's basically a logistical exercise in which the federal government sends in this huge cache of medicines, placebos, and then the state and county and local law enforcement and health and fire agencies kind of spring into action," he says.
Day One of the exercise involves action planning. Mr. Caid says all the participants, first responders, pharmacists, medical teams and others, will gather at conference tables, learning how to work together: "We want that interaction, that group dynamic discussing how such an event would affect each entity," he says. "This is where communication needs to take place. And as the first day unfolds, we want to leave it that there has been an event, systems locally and regionally have been strained, our state system is overwhelmed and we need to call for federal resources."
Once that call for help has been issued, Day Two puts the collaborative plan into action. Forty-three-thousand kilos of equipment will be gathered from various locations and brought to where it's needed. "Once it lands locally, it's in our hands and we've got to be able to break the equipment down and get it ready to go out to our mass dispensing site, so the second day we want to test the ability to actually break down all the pharmaceuticals and medical/surgical equipment and have it staged to be taken out to the mass dispensing site," says Mr. Caid.
Day Three involves all the equipment, six tons of pharmaceuticals, and hundreds of local volunteers: "victims" of a viral attack. Health Department Director Elizabeth MacNeil will be working with the "patients". "We actually want to have a thousand victims. I'd be happy to have between 250-500 victims and I can pass them through the line a couple of times with different scripts each time. There will be a script that tells them what they should be doing, their age, medical condition," she says. "They're going to be using their scripts and that's to ensure we have a variety of people with different medical problems and can more accurately prepare for the kinds of folks we might see in the community if we really had an emergency."
Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson has said, 'what Tucson does during these three days will be the shining example for the rest of the country.' Event Coordinator Les Caid agrees, saying "I don't know of any other community that has tried to put together all three components, the conference, the stockpile receipt, storage and staging, and the mass dispensing site so I think from that aspect, this may be considered the Mother of all Drills."
He says after a lot of behind-the-scenes work, all players are ready. "When we started this in 1999, we were trying to sell it. Now after the events of September 2001, we no longer have to sell this. Most people in America, prior to 9-11, really didn't worry too much about the systems that were in place for emergency management and preparedness, they kind of took those things for granted," he says. "Now the American public is saying 'what's out there, what is protecting us, is that system in place?'"
It's questions like those that should be answered by the massive simulated response drill. "It's like putting an Erector set together with people building their parts in different places and it's all put together at one time. There's going to be some rough edges, we'll find some gaps and we're going to learn a ton from this," says Mr. Caid.
Learning what can go wrong and what to do to fix the problems is what drills like this are all about. Dr. MacNeil says those lessons will be invaluable in the future. "We feel that practicing today is going to prevent pandemonium tomorrow. The more we can practice doing this now, when it's not an emergency situation, the better we're going to be prepared when we actually do have an emergency."
Tucson's experience will help the entire nation by better prepared, and better trained at working closely together… whatever the emergency might be.