Imagine an overseas outbreak of avian flu that mutates into a human-spread virus, which quickly sweeps the population of the world, including Gunnison County. That’s exactly the scenario county emergency personnel and local government officials grappled with during a “tabletop” exercise at the Fred Field multipurpose building in Gunnison on March 3.
Led by Gunnison County Red Cross disaster coordinator Arden Anderson, more than 100 health preparedness officials came together to practice a planning and response effort to deal with a major pandemic similar to the Spanish influenza that swept the world in 1918.
The objectives of the exercise were to test the command and communications ability of county officials in the face of such a crisis. “If you’re not well organized in an emergency, things can go to hell in a hand basket rather quickly,” said Anderson.
Following the principles of an Incident Command System (ICS), the assembled officials broke into smaller groups based on specific needs and areas of expertise. Besides emergencies such as pandemics, Anderson said, the system would be used in any major incident.
“One of the things that’s important about the ICS is that it’s variable,” said Anderson.
“If it’s a large incident, it can be expanded.”
The disaster response protocol starts with the local elected officials, or “policy administrators,” who in this case are the county commissioners and their staff.
They authorize a “unified command,” comprised primarily of local health and emergency officials who will make the major tactical decisions about how to deal with such an emergency.
Dr. John Tarr, the Gunnison County health officer, said the unified command will be authorized by the elected officials to act on specific priorities and objectives. “The first priority in this case will be the preservation of human life,” he said. “The second is to maintain a normally functioning society.”
Dissemination of information to the public is a key element to an effective emergency response, and Rick Barton who works as a public information officer (PIO) for the Colorado State Forest Service, said a public information group would work directly under the incident command. “Any information released has to be approved by the incident commander,” he told the group at his table.
The operational structure created to deal with such a disaster is further divided into planning, logistics, operations, safety and finance groups. The idea is to keep tasks separate and succinct in order to provide the most effective emergency response.
The operations group—likely to be the largest group in the event of such an outbreak—will provide needed medical assistance and food and water distribution as well as any other services needed to keep the society functioning. It will consist of medical personnel such as doctors, nurses, emergency medical technicians, firemen and anyone else with requisite skills.
The planning and logistic groups work at the behest of the unified command to supply the emergency workers with their logistical needs and plans for operation.
In the case of a highly communicable flu outbreak, the health of the emergency response providers is paramount. The safety group is responsible for supplying a protocol to minimize the risk of infection within the organization.
The finance group, led by county finance officials, will be responsible for securing and dispensing necessary funds for the entire operation.
A pandemic is a global outbreak of a new virus which easily infects and spreads in human populations. There have been three influenza pandemics in the 20th century. The most severe, the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918, killed at least 40 million people worldwide (including 650,000 Americans) and perhaps as many as 100 million.
While much of the Western Slope of Colorado was hit hard by the outbreak, Gunnison County fared remarkably well due to the quarantine placed by county officials, who denied access into populated areas to people who were not from the county.
Health officials worry that a new human influenza virus could arise from bird influenza viruses such as “H5N1,” which may mutate into a form that is spread readily from person to person. Experts theorize that a mutation of avian flu sparked the pandemic of 1918.
The H5N1 outbreak among domestic chickens and ducks in Asia is widespread and uncontrolled and has caused deaths among people who have come into contact with the infected birds. So far, however, the H5N1 virus has not developed the ability to pass easily from person to person.
The Gunnison County pandemic exercise was based on the supposition that H5N1 had mutated into a human-spread form and was causing widespread fatalities throughout the area. Similar exercises are being staged at counties throughout the state, according to health department officials.
At the end of the four-hour exercise, Anderson said a lot of progress had been made toward county emergency preparedness. Nancy Quintana, a health official who was contracted by the state of Colorado to assess the exercise agreed. “The leadership you have here is outstanding,” she said.
Gunnison County emergency manager Scott Morrill closed the exercise by making a plea for personal preparedness. In the case of a pandemic flu outbreak, that means stockpiling necessities such as food and water and being able to function without much social contact.
“One of the key points is personal preparedness,” Morrill told the assembled group. “If you and your employees and staffs are well prepared, they’ll be a lot more willing to help out.”