Conference sheds light on disaster care

In the popular view of disasters, panic overrides all else. Yet, research discussed at the first Yale New Haven International Congress on Disaster Medicine and Emergency Management shows otherwise. In fact, survivors are often calm enough to search for others, just like trained responders.

Along with dispelling other disaster myths, the congress, held Tuesday and Wednesday at the Omni Hotel, provided a forum for education and communication between disaster medicine and management experts, event organizers said. Participants came from as near as Yale-New Haven Hospital and as far away as Spain, Norway, Israel and Australia. Nearly 300 people were in attendance.

“The idea was to, in a very practical way, give people something to take back. We had people from all over the world,” said Christopher Cannon EPH ’79 NUR ’79, director of the Yale-New Haven Center for Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Response.

Though the conference was held as the recovery efforts in the Gulf Coast continue, it was not proposed in response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster. Joel Severance, emergency management planner in Middlesex County, Conn., said the conference would have been necessary even without the recent natural disaster.

Cannon said planning for the conference started almost a year ago but did not ignore recent events.

“There was a lot of discussion about [Katrina],” Cannon said. “One of the most important things we can learn is how we need horizontal integration — how to work together at the local level.”

Despite recent criticism of the federal government’s response to Katrina, experts at the conference were not so quick to assign blame to the federal government.

“You can say whatever you want about the federal response, but they’ve always said they won’t be there for 72 to 96 hours,” Cannon said.

Dr. Marvin Birnbaum, president of the World Association of Disaster and Emergency Medicine, said Katrina presented an opportunity to further the science of disaster medicine. He discussed Katrina as a case study for further learning in his remarks during the conference’s closing ceremonies.

“I think our approach to the events on the Gulf Coast must be positive. I’ll be angry if it’s just finger-pointing,” he said. “There was a lot of good that happened, and we can make it better with talks like these. It’s the way we learn.”

Conference speakers noted the interdisciplinary nature of disaster medicine, a field that has not yet come fully into its own. Dr. Jeffrey Arnold, medical director for the emergency preparedness center, said the task of disaster management is too large for doctors and nurses to tackle on their own.

Speakers stressed the importance of conferences such as this one, citing the growing need for disaster planning.

“There’s a huge increasing risk of disasters in the world,” Arnold said. “There’s increasing world population, increasing environmental degradation and increasing hazardous materials in the world: biological, chemical and nuclear. There’s deteriorating infrastructure and things never built well at all.”

Poor building construction led to many of the deaths in the December 2003 earthquake in Bam, Iran, Arnold said.

One participant from Australia said this conference filled a vital need. Erin Smith, an epidemiologist at Monash University in Melbourne, said there are few people working in disaster medicine in her country, and the congress was a valuable opportunity to discuss the latest in the field.

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