Where Is Our Protection?

Terrorism seems to be the buzzword in the fire service, and this is as it should be. We think of the World Trade Center incidents of 9/11 and in 1993. We think of Oklahoma City. As Americans we are prime targets of many extremist groups.


Terrorism seems to be the buzzword in the fire service, and this is as it should be. We think of the World Trade Center incidents of 9/11 and in 1993. We think of Oklahoma City. As Americans we are prime targets of many extremist groups. When we think of weapons of mass destruction, we categorize...


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Terrorism seems to be the buzzword in the fire service, and this is as it should be. We think of the World Trade Center incidents of 9/11 and in 1993. We think of Oklahoma City. As Americans we are prime targets of many extremist groups.

When we think of weapons of mass destruction, we categorize them as nuclear, chemical or biological agents. Studies and current information have shown the nuclear threat is not as pressing as the other two, and considering the others, chemical and biological, the latter is truly the worst of all. I say this because it would take a week or more before we would even know an event has happened.

If you consider the incubation periods of most diseases, all usually take between three and 10 days to show up in any recognizable form. Even then, most appear as the common cold or flu. If a biological event occurs during flu season, most victims would be dismissed as being flu patients. When otherwise normally healthy individuals start to die, and the victims are tracked to a general area, the alarm may or may not be sounded, and even then only by extremely astute health care professionals.

Actually, what would happen is EMS crews would notice trends in illnesses, then report that to their supervisors and medical directors. This in turn would be discussed with other medical directors and health departments, and an investigation would be initiated. Depending on what agent or pathogen has been released will dictate the procedures followed.

As of late, it appears as though the biological agent du jour is smallpox. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared in 1982 that smallpox was eradicated from the face of the earth. This, of course, is a nice thought, but further evidence has shown this is not the case. If you have read the book Biohazard by Dr. Ken Alebek, who was the director of the "Biopreparat," the Soviet Union's biological weapons production division, he mentions the sobering fact that tons of smallpox was manufactured, and in some experiments combined with other pox viruses, like chicken pox and cow pox, in order to make them even more virulent, and resistant to conventional treatments. The Soviet Union is defunct, but the pathogens are still around. If you consider the economic state of Russia and the states of the former Soviet Union, and combine them with the greed, desperation and ruthlessness of some countries, the combination is deadly.

Let us consider smallpox, and a release in this country. Most American baby boomers received smallpox vaccinations in the 1950s. That immunity is non-existent today. No one has been vaccinated since 1982. Because the WHO declared the smallpox virus eradicated, there is a minimal amount of vaccine on hand. The sad thing is that the federal government has declared that all first responders should be vaccinated first. There is not enough vaccine on hand to even start this project.

Recently, Region 7 in Florida conducted a smallpox tabletop exercise, and indeed it was a learning experience. Health care providers in all arenas were present from Miami-Dade, Broward, Monroe and Palm Beach counties. The bottom line from the exercise is this: if our first responders are not vaccinated very soon, we could potentially have a crisis on our hands. Even when people are vaccinated against smallpox, it takes between seven and 12 days before the immunity is effective. After the terrorist releases the agent is not the time to be vaccinated.

The exercise involved the entire southeastern portion of the state, an area of more than 3,000 square miles. In the scenario, the "disease" eventually showed up as far north as Tallahassee. The "death count" was conservatively estimated at around 400 people, and many thousands of people were "infected."

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