The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

Local News

May 9, 2014

Always ready, always there

National Guard trains here for anthrax attack

MERCER COUNTY — National Guard troops rolled into Mercer County Thursday afternoon, ready to medicate 40,000 residents with Cipro, an antibiotic effective against the deadly effects of an anthrax attack.

Or they would have, if the catastrophic scenario developed by emergency management officials and the guard had actually happened.

Instead, the unit from Philadelphia worked through an exercise in setting up a medication-delivery system housed at the Community Food Warehouse of Mercer County in Sharon.

Part of a statewide training program called “Vigilant Guard,” the troops were scattered across the state, playing out different scenarios involving the need to merge civilian agencies and military personnel to help residents. Only Mercer and Lawrence counties were involved in the western half of the state, said Frank Jannetti, the county’s emergency management coordinator.

“It’s really an honor to be chosen to participate in the exercise and I think that we were chosen because we’ve gotten a reputation about being pretty good at this sort of thing,” he said.

Residents should have a sense of security, he said, about the preparedness of first responders and social service agencies. “People need to know that the planning is done and the training is done, so that we have a comfort level in dealing with this kind of thing. It’s important that they know that we know how to handle it,” he added.

Once the unit arrived, Guard members were told the scenario involved an anthrax attack in neighboring Lawrence County. The biological hazard had been identified 24 hours earlier and preventive medicine had to be distributed in less than 48 hours. Crews had to set up registration, screening and delivery areas, as well as coordinate information released to the public.

“The important part of this training,” according to David Dinger, a public health coordinator and retired Army veteran, “is that the Guard can assimilate and do something that may be way outside of what they normally do. And they need to do it with 100 percent accuracy,” he said.

Dinger explained that in large-scale disasters, volunteers are generally used to help with those tasks assigned to the Guard. The problem, he said, is that there is a shortage of volunteers involved with SERVPA, an online registry of medical and nonmedical personnel. “So we may end up calling in the National Guard to make sure we can take care of what we need to. And this drill is to make sure they can, with very little training, get it done right,” he said.

Debbie Iliff, community outreach coordinator for Grove City Medical Center in Pine Township served as the public information officer for the exercise. She, along with representatives from all the area hospitals and many other public service agencies, worked in tandem with the Guard.

Iliff said scenarios like this one help the agencies and military troops work through the tiny details that have the potential to cause problems. “For example, what if the electrical outlets aren’t three-pronged and that’s what we need? Or what if we have 40,000 people in a panic outside? How do we make sure we don’t give this medication to someone who is allergic? So much of what has to be worked through today are tiny details. But they make all the difference,” she said.

Some Guard troops worked to unload the boxes and boxes of medication they brought with them. The agencies chose the food warehouse as the site for the drill because of its loading dock and knowledge of large-scale shipments, Iliff said.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be an attack that would require mobilization of the Guard, she said, but it could be weather or a health-related epidemic.

The only problem with the drill, Jannetti said, was that the troops arrived late. “Coming from Philadelphia they weren’t familiar with Mercer County and they got lost. Which could happen in a real scenario, but we adapted to it,” he said.

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