City prepares to face threats

More than 75 public officials, first responders and Yale administrators attempted to contain a virtual smallpox outbreak Tuesday, during a two-hour “tabletop scenario” designed to assess the city’s ability to respond to bioterrorism.

Representatives from all three area hospitals, the Yale and New Haven police departments and the New Haven Fire Department worked with state emergency response officials and the heads of all major city departments during the exercise, which revealed serious communication gaps and personnel problems that participants agreed could hinder the region’s ability to cope with a real terrorist attack.

“The point is that communication has to begin really, really early during a disaster,” said John Boyce, the chief of infectious diseases at New Haven’s Hospital of St. Raphael.

But almost all of the officials present said the exercise gave them an opportunity to meet other members of the city emergency response community. Chris Cannon, an administrator in the Yale-New Haven Hospital System, said interactions between the various health-care entities rapidly improved over the course of the scenario.

“It’s very important to know all the players,” he said.

The scenario, which was similar to those used in exercises in Philadelphia and New York, unfolded over 10 virtual “days” that each lasted a few minutes. Every day, participants received new information about the outbreak and were forced to make split-second decisions.

In the scenario, a group of Yale students returns to New Haven after a trip in the Middle East; later, officials at an area hospital discover that several are infected with smallpox.

Yale student Diana Cieslak ’04, who helped research and create the plot during a summer fellowship in City Hall, said participants were provided with only a timeline of events.

“Beyond the basic facts, most of it was driven by the decisions of the participants,” Cieslak said. “My biggest goal in planning the exercise was that people not have all the answers.”

Cieslak apparently achieved her goal. During a one-hour “debriefing period” that followed the scenario, few officials said their existing response capabilities had proved adequate.

During the actual exercise, several participants said they did not know where to turn for new information. Lt. Andrew Campion of the New Haven Fire Department said the confusion demonstrated the need for intensive coordination.

“If you want valid information, you don’t call your police contact,” he said. “You don’t call your contact at the hospital. You call the Emergency Operations Center.”

The command center, which is staffed during public emergencies, allows city officials to coordinate response strategies from a central location.

Yale officials who participated in the exercise grappled with their own unique problems. After rumors spread throughout campus that students had been infected with smallpox, over 1,500 undergraduates fled New Haven, making health officials’ plans to quarantine the University virtually impossible.

The administrators — including University Secretary Linda Lorimer and University Health Services Director Paul Genecin — also fought to control dangerous rumors that could have turned the problem into a larger-scale disaster.

Following the exercise, many New Haven department heads and emergency officials praised Yale’s conduct during the scenario.

“Yale’s willingness to work with the city on these things has increased so much since last September,” said Jim Moore, who directs the city’s Emergency Operations Center.

But some said Yale was too slow to notify the officials at local hospitals.

Despite the federal government’s promises to help those on the “front lines” of the war on terrorism — the nation’s municipal workers — several of the participants expressed frustration at the lack of funding and support their organizations have received.

“We didn’t receive any federal funding for the exercise, and the city hasn’t gotten enough in general for homeland security,” Cieslak said.

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