Friday, July 11, 2008

Preparation In the Absence of Press

The threat of pandemic flu has gotten a lot less press lately, mostly because the incidence of avian flu seems to have plateaued somewhat (though Indonesia is still being really tight-lipped about what's going on there, so who really knows?)

But even though the issue is getting less attention in the media, some communities are continuing to do the smart thing and developing plans to address a pandemic flu. It's worth remembering that there's no guarantee that the source of the next human pandemic will be avian flu. It could come from another source, and it could conceivably come out of nowhere and surprise us.

So it's good to see local communities, like these in South Dakota, working together to develop plans to deal with the threat, which in its severest instances (e.g., an event comparable to the 1918 Spanish Flu outbreak) could have more widespread impacts than almost any other catastrophic event:

After more than a year of work, the members of a local planning committee will present their pandemic influenza response plan to the public.

The 131-page plan was developed by committees from Aurora, Davison and Hanson counties and it provides guidelines on how to deal with a pandemic flu outbreak that many medical professionals believe is inevitable.

[The plan] provides action checklists to help schools, businesses and other community organizations develop a coping plan, in the event of a flu outbreak.

A family preparedness kit will ... demonstrate what items should be on hand in the event of an epidemic. Such preparedness will be important in the event of a flu outbreak.

While the Centers For Disease Control and the state Health Department will monitor and report on all flu outbreaks, said Assistant Mitchell Fire Chief Steve Willis, local jurisdictions will largely be on their own.

Apathy is the greatest danger when it comes to planning for a dangerous flu outbreak, says Jim Montgomery, Davison County Emergency Management director.

Mr. Montgomery is absolutely right - the best community-based plan will be useless unless individual citizens, businesses and other entities such as churches and community groups do their part to prepare.

In my humble opinion, the effort to create the plan ought to be dwarfed by the effort to distribute it, publicize it, and follow up to ensure that people are prepared. According to the Red Cross, more than 90 percent of Americans are not prepared for a major disaster. In Mitchell, only about 40 people (in a population of 15,000) showed up at the meeting to learn about the pandemic flu plan. But as the dedicated John Solomon regularly and diligently reminds us (because repetition makes a message stick) citizen preparedness is vital.

The Holy Grail of preparedness is getting more individuals to prepare on their own. Every citizen that's adequately prepared will help the system - not only by being better off themselves, but also by reducing the strain on community services, improving the situation for their neighbors as well.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

A Sensible Decision

An update on this story:

Prosecutors have dropped the "weapons of mass destruction" charge in the case of the South Carolina teenager who allegedly planned to bomb his school.

The teenager who allegedly planned to destroy his high school with explosives will not face a WMD charge at his anticipated trial, the Associated Press reported yesterday.

Ryan Schallenberger, 18, had been charged with attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction in connection with his suspected plot against Chesterfield High School. Federal prosecutors dropped the charge without explanation in May.
The WMD charge never made sense. He had enough ammonium nitrate to take out a classroom or two, but that's a far cry from a weapon of mass destruction.

Calling something "WMD" when it's not only confuses and dilutes the meaning of the term.

For What It's Worth

One time I recall hearing someone quip that to understand what's meant by the word "expert," you just have to analyze its two syllables. When you do this, you realize that an "ex" is a has-been and a "spurt" is a drip under pressure.

So then.

A group of homeland security experts have spoken:

Book Hill Partners and the Homeland Defense Journal released the results of a survey of 122 homeland security experts on priorities for the next administration in protecting the American people and homeland.

Key findings of the survey include:
  • Over 83 percent of experts surveyed expected a major disaster of some kind in the United States within the next four years, within the term of the next president.
  • Roughly 58 percent of respondents said that the most probable scenario for a major disaster was a natural disaster. More surprisingly almost 22 percent of experts said that the most probable scenario for a major disaster was a terrorist attack with a weapon of mass destruction (chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear specifically).
  • Almost 72 percent of respondents expect major changes if Sen. Obama is the next president. In contrast, over 80 percent of respondents believed that homeland security policies under a McCain administration would be largely unchanged from those under the Bush administration.
  • The next administration's top four homeland security priorities should be border security, emergency response, development of medical counter-measures to weapons of mass destruction, and port security.
Prognostication is always a nice safe business. Even if you're wrong, it was just an educated guess anyway. But I am curious as to how anyone could predict a "major natural disaster" within a given timeframe. You can lay odds on it, sure, but to expect that one will happen? Hmm...

Terrorists and the Energy Infrastructure: What's the Risk?

In a brief paper published under the auspices of the Naval Postgraduate School, Dr. Michael Mihalka and Dr. David Anderson analyze the risk of catastrophic terrorism targeting the energy infrastructure. They argue that the risk is relatively slight when compared to other threats:

The threat from and effect of transnational terrorism [to the energy sector] is much less than many pundits have argued. In essence, the transnational terrorism poses a challenge well within the parameters of natural events and the ability of the current security system to handle.

Well, we must remember that the prime threat to the security of supply in the short-term perspective is not terrorism, or even politics. It's Mother Nature.
It's certainly true that a terrorist group would really have to "go big" to replicate the kind of disruption to the energy sector that Hurricanes Katrina and Rita caused.

Energy is one sector in which the ability to respond and recover can be a real deterrent. A primary goal of any direct attack on energy infrastructure would be economic. But if the economic damage is mitigated by resiliency in the sector, then there's less rationale for the attack.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

How Do They Do It? ... Volume! Volume! Volume!

State, local, and tribal governments will soon be able to leverage the federal government's buying power to purchase homeland-security related items:

The U.S. General Services Administration received new authority to help state and local governments in purchasing homeland security equipment and services under the Local Preparedness Acquisitions Act (HB 3179) signed by President Bush last week. The new law authorizes the GSA Administrator to allow state, local, and tribal governments to buy homeland security goods and services through the cooperative purchasing program. Officials will be able to use GSA's Schedule 84 to buy items such as alarm systems, facility management systems, firefighting and rescue equipment, law enforcement and security equipment, and marine craft.

Federal Acquisition Service Commissioner Jim Williams said, "GSA's ability to leverage the federal government's enormous buying power enables us to provide goods and services at best value and pass the savings on to our client agencies. Now we can pass these discounts on to state and local governments ...
Using your organization's buying power to get discounts is, of course, a no-brainer.

At the same time, state, local and tribal governments have to maintain strategic discipline and avoid slipping into the tempting but faulty line of thinking that homeland security means the opportunity to buy more stuff (!)

Material purchases should always support the state and local homeland security strategy. If they don't, the money is probably better spent elsewhere, even if the new stuff looks great and provides local politicians with some really nice publicity shots.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Sensible Medicine

The Florida legislature recently passed a law that makes sense. It will allow people to refill prescriptions in an emergency, even if their insurer says they're not yet due for a refill:

Recently, the Legislature passed the Emergency Prescription Refill bill (Florida Statute 252.358 and 462.0275). This law requires all insurers and managed-care organizations to suspend refill-too-soon restrictions when a patient seeks a refill in a county that:
  • Is currently under a hurricane warning issued by the National Weather Service
  • Is declared to be under a state of emergency in an executive order issued by the governor
  • Has activated its emergency operations center and its emergency management plan
This law also allows patients outside of these areas to get an emergency 72-hour refill if the pharmacist is unable to readily obtain refill authorization from the doctor.
In certain cases, simply telling people to "be prepared" is not enough. Sometimes you've got to remove obstacles for them. This law is a good example of that.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

FEMA: The Iceman Will No Longer Cometh

Catching up on this one:

FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison said in April his agency will only distribute ice for medical emergencies or life-threatening situations following a disaster. Since its inception, FEMA has provided ice to disaster victims, especially in areas where power outages occur.

“We’re not in the ice business anymore,” Paulison said, and that it is not a “life-saving commodity” for most people. “It takes a tremendous amount of resources, and it really doesn't accomplish much, other than making people feel good because they have a bag of ice," Paulison added. “Ice is more of a comfort thing.”

“My response is that during July, August and September in South Mississippi, ice is not necessarily used to cool water to drink,” said Don McKinnon, director of the Jones County Emergency Operations Center (EOC). “During emergencies, it is used for medical purposes to keep specific medications cool, to help keep food good in refrigerators until power can be restored, and for cooling people off. It is a necessity here."

With the current situation (FEMA out of the ice business), McKinnon said the “state is trying to take up the slack. They (state emergency agencies) have limited resources, and can’t do it quite as effectively as FEMA did. Our pockets aren’t that deep. Locally, we hope we keep water pressure and generators to try to provide ice. Large chicken plants produce large amounts of ice and they have been kind enough to share it with the citizens of Jones County. After Katrina, they provided several thousands of pounds of ice.

“Who will distribute the ice?,” McKinnon asked. “We don’t have the manpower or resources to do that, or don’t have funds to buy ice and give to people. It’s a big void in our plan right now; we don’t know what we’re going to do. If we’re able to get any ice at all, it will probably be from the state if local providers are down. We will definitely focus on medical needs, and the elderly and young to keep them cool to prevent heat stroke and deaths."
This needs to get worked out. Your bottled water may not need ice, but your food and medicine do. The big question: How does FEMA define a "medical emergency" or "life-threatening siutation"?

Here's what's puzzling to me: It's fine if FEMA doesn't deliver the ice themselves - they have already vowed to get out of the logistics and transportation business, leaving that work to contractors. But with their buying power and their network of suppliers, they ought to be able to facilitate the supply of necessary ice during an emergency.

This also seems to show a disconnect between state and local homeland security and DHS/FEMA. Did FEMA get local input before making this decision?