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MD prepares for bio-terror

In a real emergency, you'd take your clothes off before going through a decontamination unit but on Monday morning Maryland's homeland security officials didn't even loosen their ties.

BY SUSAN KIM | ROCKVILLE, Md. | February 15, 2005

"We are working much more closely together."

—Peter Monge

In a real emergency, you'd take your clothes off before going through a decontamination unit but on Monday morning Maryland's homeland security officials didn't even loosen their ties.

As they paraded through the "decon unit," set up for a demonstration outside the emergency room doors at Shady Grove Adventist Hospital, Joe Novello pointed out its features the way someone might show off a new car.

"This is a completely self-contained trailer," explained Novello, the hospital's security director. "It has a heating system and a water bladder, so water can be pumped out. It has a generator, and decontamination showers separated by gender."

Outside, a man in a hazmat suit posed, smiling, for photos.

The politicking surrounding homeland security issues sometimes overshadows what people like Novello - and other hospital administrators in Montgomery County - have been plugging away at, month after month.

In a move that's comparatively rare - especially given the competition for state and federal homeland security grants - Shady Grove Adventist Hospital and four other hospitals in the area decided to pool their homeland security grants and work together.

They formed the Montgomery County Hospital Collaborative Task Force on Weapons of Mass Destruction. The name may sound like a combination of bureaucratese and doomsday. But given Montgomery County rests right against Washington, D.C. - and at least some of the anthrax attacks were centered there in October 2001 - Montgomery County hospital officials have a lot to worry about.

They decided to worry together. In 2003, the task force trained 169 people to respond to a mass casualty or contamination incident. In 2004, the team trained 219 more. The hospital system is now better prepared to respond not only to a bio-terrorism incident but also any hazmat incident such as a chemical train derailment.

It's a big change in the way hospitals - competitive entities - work together, said Deborah Yancer, president of Shady Grove Adventist Hospital. "But here we are in a fast-growing community and we are at a point in time when thinking about security requires a lot of change."

Do hospitals feel more ready? Yes, agreed executives. But the question is: what's going to happen next? Decontamination trailers won't protect people against attacks on the water supply, for example.

"We are working much more closely together," said Peter Monge, president and CEO of Montgomery General Hospital, "but everything we know today changes tomorrow."

Within planning such sophisticated response, there is the simplest element of relating to each other as community-level responders, said Susan Glover, who chairs the task force. "We're now cell phone buddies. We purchase together. We train together."

On a state level, it's community initiatives like these that increase overall preparedness, said Dennis Schrader, director of the Maryland Governor's Office of Homeland Security. "We like to see how our investments have been working. The governor's strategy is about relying on local initiatives."

Maryland will receive $322 million for homeland security through Fiscal Year 2005.

As officials went through the decon unit, their voices quieted. The unit, equipped with tent walls and showers, can decontaminate 70-75 ambulatory or non-ambulatory patients per hour. Walking through the unit, it's difficult to ignore the seriousness of such a response.

And it's not difficult to see that hospitals must prepare for a terrorist attack even while they serve their everyday patients. Patients walked into the emergency room at Shady Grove, some glancing at the decontamination unit, others too distracted to care.

The unit can feed people directly into a quarantined room in the hospital, where they can receive further treatment. Winding around the hospital corridors, at the center of the building is the hospital's incident command center - Morello's headquarters.

"We are at a continual state of readiness," he said, adding he can lock down the entire hospital by touching one button on his computer. "We've got radios, manuals, TVs, fax machines, computers. We monitor the entire hospital - inside and outside, the whole campus - 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

The five Montgomery County hospitals now can communicate through PS2000 radio, which connects them not only to each other but also to the National Institutes of Health and the National Naval Medical Center. PS2000 serves as an alert system. Hospital officials can talk live at any time via a desktop radio system or a portable radio.

In other Maryland homeland security news, Baltimore County has a new armored vehicle courtesy of a $1.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The county received the keys to the vehicle during a Feb. 2 ceremony in Annapolis.

The county was one of seven jurisdictions in Maryland to purchase such a vehicle, which will be used to coordinate response to criminal and terrorist acts.

The grant was awarded to the Baltimore Urban Area Work Group, an organization made up of representatives of Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties and Baltimore City.

Nearby, the Washington, D.C. government is partnering with the federal government to build a level-3 bio-terrorism lab within the city. A level-3 lab can handle deadly agents such as ricin and anthrax.

Level-3 is the second most secure type of lab, with Level-4 as the highest security. Ft. Detrick in Maryland is home to a level-4 lab.

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