Thoughts on a Recent Disaster Drill, by Ken J.

Mr. Rawles: 
I run a health care facility in a particular state.  I’d prefer not to give away all details as I do have access to certain pharmaceutical supplies in the event of certain happenings due to my position in the local community.  But I’ll be as specific as I can be in this forum in the hopes of shedding some light on a recent disaster exercise. 

Local authorities from the state department of health teamed up with numerous statewide personnel from various agencies to conduct a disaster simulation recently that assumed an anthrax attack on the local populace.  It can be debated here as to whether simulating an anthrax attack is the most useful scenario to plan for, or if an EMP or some other event might be more useful in terms of what is most likely to occur.  But I can see where simulating an anthrax attack might also be similar to a significant pandemic event such as a strain of previously unknown flu/virus or a widespread outbreak of a known virus that may simply stop responding to traditional treatments. 

Nevertheless, anthrax is what was decided the simulation would cover.  Under the scenario, multiple health care facilities would receive supplies of the appropriate medications (cipro and doxycycline) and then distribute these to their employee’s and families.  Also a number of other distribution points would be set up for the general public to receive various doses of the drugs.  So, the simulation called for an attack to have taken place and then the main distribution point to be set up.  The volunteers then went through the lines and “meds” were distributed to them.  The simulation was fairly specific as forms were used by each volunteer and on each form was described the age of each family member, whether they could swallow pills, if anyone was under 90 pounds, etc.  The exercise also assumed that certain people would be only Spanish speaking and provisions were made for them.  Security was also a key aspect at the event.  I saw at least 6-8 armed officers there, though in a building as large as what was used, I’d recommend triple that in an actual scenario as people would be quite panicked in all likelihood.

I’ll list what I saw as highlights of what was done well and I’ll also list a few thoughts as to some potential problem areas:
First..what went was fairly well organized, especially given the fact that at least a couple hundred people were involved.  Also, some very key players from around the state were there and brought a good bit of expertise to the table.  The information about anthrax and the medications seemed to be fairly well understood by most of the workers.  And everyone I interacted with was taking it seriously and trying to learn what they could learn. 

Potential drawbacks or problem areas: 
There are no guarantees that all of the ‘workers’ who would help staff such a distribution center would actually show up in a real scenario.  Many might decide to hunker down with families or evacuate the general area if they thought the attack wasn’t widespread.  Thus, what is the contingency for a lack of workers to help with distribution? 

As I mentioned, I thought security assumptions were on the low side.  They may simply have not had enough local resources free that day to send any more.  And their ‘real’ plan may include a much more robust security team, but I can only judge what was visible at the recent exercise. 

While I believe it is good to train and plan for various contingencies, I wonder at the regional/state/local level if the powers that be are doing dry runs of the more likely scenarios.  Is it likely that someone could spread weaponized anthrax over a large area and infect a high number of people?  I don’t know.  I tend to think that some of these agencies, even if aware of EMPs, may not plan for it because deep down they know that there isn’t much planning that can be done due to the likely communications issues, transportation issues, and a general and fast breakdown of all society. 

All in all, I’m glad to have some inside track knowledge of some of these planning strategies but as one observes a large scale exercise like this, it reminds you that it will be exceedingly different and difficult in an actual event and that we can’t be over-prepared in our personal plans at our home or retreat.   
As you recommend many times over, conducting your own training for your family/team/trusted friends related to what each can or may need to do in an actual event is very important.  Assuming you can read a book, article, blog, pamphlet, or watch a video and thus be prepared is very naïve.  I believe you have to shake the dust off and actually get up and around and practice drills, scenarios, and events.