By DENISE RAYMO
---- — ST. REGIS FALLS — Minor computer glitches were all that slowed a anthrax-exposure drill Friday that tested the preparedness of Franklin County Public Health staff.
Franklin County is one of the first in the state to complete the exercise, which is mandated by the State Health Department, said Director Katie Strack.
The state plans to evaluate how well counties have benefited from state-issued disaster-preparedness funding provided following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania.
About 50 student “victims” from St. Regis Falls Central School volunteered to preregister, check in and move through waiting lines to a bank of nurses who dispensed “medicine” and gave follow-up instructions, which is exactly what would happen in a real emergency.
Strack was the incident commander, and the exercise was coordinated by Patty McGillicuddy as operations manager and Michael Harrigan as the logistics manager.
Timing is a crucial component in a real disaster, and the state wanted to see counties simulate treating as many as 200 people an hour and an entire county population within 48 hours.
“There were a few computer hiccups,” Strack said.
But the average processing time per person, she saw in randomly chosen paperwork, was between four and nine minutes, with a low of three minutes and a high of 15 minutes.
Considering this was the first time the staff was tested like this, she said, “I don’t think that’s bad at all.”
‘LIKE A CRIME SCENE’
“We did see we have to get quicker with the lines, but this is the first time, and the state needs to hear it so they can pass it on to other counties as they prepare,” Strack told her team in an after-event briefing.
Held at the St. Regis Falls Adult Center, the drill was one of the final pieces of the training and execution of a dispensing exercise that began Wednesday with the county’s Emergency Services Department, Health Department and Sheriff’s Department; State Police and other agencies practicing decontamination, communications, security and other techniques needed during a real event.
That’s when each exposure “is treated like a crime scene,” Strack said, where the exposed person’s clothes are collected, their home decontaminated and they are processed through to obtain a 10-day supply of medicine with orders to see their own doctor if their condition gets worse and return for follow-up care and more antidote.
Hospitals would be overwhelmed with patients in a real large-scale emergency, so having trained professionals manning these kinds of dispensing centers could ensure only the people who show real symptoms of exposure would get that level of care.
“There is no guarantee people will take (the medicine), but that’s not what we’re here for,” she said. “We’re keeping people out of the medical system, but sending them to their doctor when they need help.”
‘CHOMPING AT THE BIT’
The student volunteers went through the processing stations twice to give the professional staff more practice and additional data for the drill.
St. Regis Falls Principal Marc Czadzeck said the district asks students who belong to the school’s various clubs to commit to community-service activities, and used the exercise to fulfill that promise.
Many of students are earning their emergency-medical service certification to be part of local fire departments and rescue units “so some of them are really chomping at the bit to get here and help out,” he said.
“Some come down to the firehouse when a call comes in and their classes are done so they can help out,” Czadzeck said.
In addition to the student and senior-citizen volunteers, Adult Center staff, the School District and emergency, law-enforcement and data-processing people who helped carry out the drill, Strack thanked the other participating agencies for their help and support.
They included the Essex County Health Department; Alice Hyde Medical Center; Adirondack Medical Center; the Retired Senior Volunteer Program; Franklin County’s Office for the Aging, highway and buildings and grounds departments; and the Medical Reserve Corps, a team of voluntary medical personnel and professionals from all walks of life who volunteer their skills and time during a disaster.
Email Denise A. Raymo: