WASHINGTON – Montgomery County’s health department was recognized Thursday as one of a handful of agencies in the country to develop a roadmap that other counties could follow as they prepare for a bioterror attack.
The National Association of County and City Health Officials, which has been working Montgomery and other local departments to improve their preparedness, said Montgomery was particularly “innovative” in the way it trained its employees.
“Rather than just a checklist for its employees, it was kind of like a ‘Chutes and Ladders’ board game that shows you the road you need to take to preparedness,” said Mike Frazer, deputy director at the association.
The teaching tools Montgomery County designed made it easier for employees to learn the emergency response plan, said Kathy Wood, the county’s bioterrorism coordinator.
“It’s called the Roadmap to Public Health Preparedness. It’s really very clever,” Wood said. “It’s just a piece of paper, but it’s like a board game that people go through, and they have to check off certain things that make them competent in certain areas.”
There are a lot of things health employees have to think about in the case of an emergency, Wood said, like a plan for their own families, “Because you can’t take care of other people unless your own family is taken care of.”
Employees also need to know the command hierarchy of their agencies and how they fit into the master plan, a two-volume document in Montgomery. And they need to worry about something as seemingly simple as communication.
“This is going to sound funny, but many of us are not familiar with walkie-talkies,” Wood said. “Now, police and fire all use walkie-talkies. We have never had to do that.
“So, we’re having to learn how to use walkie-talkies and Nextel phones and other kinds of communication equipment,” she said.
Montgomery was one of 11 agencies deemed ready for a bioterrorist attack by NACCHO as part of its Project Public Health Ready to improve emergency readiness.
Only 13 local health agencies responded to the association’s 2002 call to participate in the project. Seven of the 13 judges were members of NACCHO and came from the counties under review, although they did not vote on their own agencies, Frazer said.
Having association members sit as judges on the project was intentional, Frazer said, so that the participating counties could see what the selection process was like and be able to return home to make improvements.
Maryland as a whole is ahead of much of the nation when it comes to readiness for a bioterror attack, according to a December report by the nonprofit Trust for America’s Health.
“Maryland tied with three other states for the top score,” the report said. “Maryland has made progress to expand the health emergency communications network, upgrade public health laboratories and develop initial bioterrorism response plans.”
Frazer said Montgomery County’s success may have to do with its proximity to Washington and facilities like the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda.
Officials at Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services said that even though the evaluation process is over, the project will continue. Judy Covich, a senior administrator at the county’s health department, credits the organization with giving the county a clear plan.
“NACCHO’s project has basically provided a process for developing the competencies and skills,” Covich said. “It provided the structure and the process for doing it. So what we are doing is really aided by that structure and process.”
On Thursday, Wood trained 400 employees on how to set up a vaccination clinic, so employees know what to expect.
“And then this will culminate with a large, full-scale exercise where we actually set up a vaccination clinic,” Wood said.
“Then we are going to send our staff through as patients, because you learn a lot if you’re the patient,” Wood said. “That’s how we learn.”
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