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  October 22, 2001

Health Center Broadens Preparedness
With Surveillance, Networking

Health Center police, fire and emergency department officials have stepped up surveillance around the campus in Farmington.

They're meeting with their counterparts around the state, establishing formal communication links, and making plans to coordinate their response to large-scale emergencies. Hospital and emergency department admissions are reviewed daily for any suspicious symptoms and a report is sent to state and federal agencies.

These protective steps are a direct result of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the recent warnings of possible additional strikes.

"There's a new sense of gravity to our efforts," says Robert Fuller, assistant professor of traumatology and emergency medicine and director of the Emergency Department. "But it's not like things suddenly changed overnight. What Sept. 11 changed is the emphasis we place now on our ability to tap into larger resources, both state and federal.

"For years, we've been preparing for disasters - or mass casualty incidents, as we call them - whether they result from a major accident or from hazardous materials like a chemical or biological substance," says Fuller.

This summer, the Health Center held a drill to practice for a serious school bus accident. In the scenario, the bus tipped over and some youngsters were badly burned, while others fell into a river. The exercise called for 12 patients to come to the Emergency Department.

"We ran through the steps we'd take if such an event actually happened," says Fuller. "We have plans in place and we drill our systems. We've been doing it for years. But because of the terrorist attacks, we are now thinking about incidents with huge numbers of casualties and how we would respond as part of a statewide network."

Fuller says it helps that the Health Center has its own police department and fire department. "We have already practiced treating people contaminated with hazardous materials," he says. "We've practiced having the police take control of the area and having the firemen deal with hazardous materials and decontaminating the scene."

Fuller is now connected through e-mail with all the emergency department physicians throughout the state and they are talking more regularly. "That alone is a big help," he says. In addition, the Connecticut Hospital Association is helping form a rapid response team for a large-scale disaster and is forming a work group to identify and address areas where statewide coordination would be valuable.

On campus, surveillance has been stepped up by the Health Center's public safety staff. "We've identified higher risk facilities, and we've increased our surveillance of them," says Neil Sullivan, director of public safety. "We've involved the Fire Department in the surveillance, basically doubling our eyes and ears around the institution." The department also has ongoing contact with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, so any information it disseminates is received at the Health Center and is passed on appropriately.

Sullivan says the Capitol Region Chiefs of Police Association for the 29 towns in the Hartford area is reviewing its mutual aid agreements. "We have the ability to call on other fire departments in the region. Some of them have special equipment and we have specially trained firemen," he says. Members of the Special Operations Unit in the Health Center's fire department are trained by the Department of Defense to function in hostile environments.

Daniel J. Penney, assistant vice president, facilities management, says the Health Center has a master plan for safety management for the entire facility because of state Department of Public Health licensing requirements and standards set by the Joint Commission on the Accreditation of Health Care Organizations.

All the systems have back-up systems and are tested regularly, and there is a back up generator that will provide power for 14 days, if necessary. The Health Center also participates in the federal National Disaster Alert System, which assesses bed counts in hospitals around the nation. "There is a state and federal network in place that would help us coordinate our efforts in case of a massive disaster," says Penney.

"Because of Sept. 11, we are revisiting our plan," he adds. "We're ensuring we have adequate medications stockpiled. And we're reviewing our communications to make sure we have a stand-alone system that would keep working if telephone lines in the area were destroyed.

Says Sullivan, the public safety director, "We are all aware that there is an amorphous threat out there and we're taking a broad generic approach to preparing for it.

"We don't want to build an arc in anticipation of a flood, then be faced with a fire," Sullivan says. "I am confident that we are as prepared as we can be."

Kristina Goodnough

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