March 8, 2002

VUMC’s readiness outlined at hearing

Featured Image

From left, U.S. Representatives Zach Wamp and Bob Clement of Tennessee and Steve Horn of California heard testimony from local and state officials about the area’s readiness for future terrorist attacks. U.S. Rep. Ed Bryant also served on the committee. (photo by Mary Donaldson)

VUMC’s readiness outlined at hearing

Preparedness for biological, chemical and nuclear attacks was discussed at a congressional hearing hosted by Vanderbilt University Medical Center and Vanderbilt University last week to gauge Tennessee’s readiness as well as the national efforts to deal with the now-prominent threat after Sept. 11.

The Subcommittee on Government Efficiency, Financial Management and Intergovernmental Relations held its inaugural field hearing at the Wyatt Center’s Rotunda Room. Hosted by U.S. Rep. Bob Clement (D-Nashville) and chaired by U.S. Rep. Steve Horn (R-Long Beach, Calif.), the panel heard testimony from members of various federal, state and local agencies that additional funding for first responders and the streamlining of efforts by all levels of government are crucial in the nation’s preparedness for future attacks. U.S. Rep. Ed Bryant (R-Henderson) and U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Chattanooga) also served on the panel.

“The aftermath of Sept. 11 clearly demonstrated the need for adequate communications systems and rapid deployment of well-trained emergency personnel,” Horn said in his opening remarks. “Yet despite billions of dollars in spending on federal emergency programs, there remains serious doubts as to whether the nation’s public health system is equipped to handle a massive chemical, biological or nuclear attack.”

Clement called for additional federal support to improve America’s defenses against terrorism.

“I believe we must pay particular attention to the various shortfalls facing our health care system,” Clement said. “We must make the necessary investments to reinforce our health care system and have professionals in place that are adequately trained and prepared for a biological or chemical attack.”

Vanderbilt’s Dr. Ian Jones, assistant professor of Emergency Medicine, and Dr. William Schaffner, professor and chair of Preventive Medicine, outlined VUMC’s plan in the event of a catastrophic attack and the area’s readiness to such an event.

“Prior to the events of Sept. 11, Nashville had been preparing for a potential terrorist attack,” Jones told the panel. “Over a year earlier, Vanderbilt University Medical Center constructed a mass decontamination facility immediately adjacent to the hospital’s Emergency Room and tested it in a city-wide chemical terrorism drill.”

This facility, according to Jones, was the first of its kind in the mid-state. An identical facility has recently been completed at the Nashville Veterans Administration hospital.

Jones then discussed the role of the Vanderbilt Environmental Health and Safety Hazardous Materials team. The 12-member team has been trained to respond to various hazardous materials situations on the Vanderbilt campus and to participate in patient/victim decontamination at VUMC. VEHS is conducting ongoing training for emergency room nurses and physicians in techniques of decontamination and the proper use of personal protective equipment.

Jones stressed the importance of prompt and accurate communication between agencies in the event of an attack.

“The events of Sept. 11 indicated how quickly currently existing communications systems can go awry,” Jones said. “The Emergency Medical Services communications system in Middle Tennessee is fragmented and is in great need of a centralized regional communications center.”

Schaffner also encouraged the congressional panel to help orchestrate the coordination and communication of the agencies that would respond to biological outbreaks and other terrorist threats in this area. This, according to Schaffner, will require “a substantial effort by a respected and knowledgeable person to coordinate public health, hospitals, physicians, nurses and emergency management in a response to various bioterrorism scenarios.”

Schaffner asked the panel to consider funding to attract competent people to lead the concerted efforts “to rebuild a professional public health infrastructure that has eroded over the years.”

“I provide a sobering reality check: in order to attract top people into these positions one must provide reasonable and competitive salaries as well as a genuinely professional environment,” Schaffner said. “Salaries in many health departments are low, and the working environment is bureaucratic and not professional.

“Of course, there are good people in public health today—they are often infused with an extraordinary personal sense of dedication and mission. But we cannot rely on such dedicated idealism alone to support our country’s response to bioterrorism.”