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A Citizen’s Eye View of Public Preparedness

Major EPA ‘Dirty Bomb’ Exercise Held In ‘Post-Attack’ Philadelphia Creates Special Community Advisory Panel To Get Public POV

May 7th, 2010 · 1 Comment

This blog has long been an advocate of better integrating the public and its perspective into major governmental emergency drills. So, it was good to hear about some citizen-focused initiatives employed during Liberty RadEx, the National Tier 2 full scale exercise sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It was held in Philadelphia late last month to test the country’s capability to clean up and help communities recover from a ‘dirty bomb’ terrorist attack on a city. The exercise was set in Philadelphia 30 to 90 days after the explosion. The specific scenario, #11 of the U.S.’s National Planning Scenarios, can be found here.

I am excited to have a first person report about the exercise from a participant, James Garrow, the Operations and Logistics Manager of the Bioterrorism and Public Health Preparedness Program of the Division of Disease Control and Emergency Preparedness at the Philadelphia Department of Public Health. Garrow, whose expertise is public health communications, reports that the exercise planners made an significant effort to get a citizens’ point of view in the drill, including the creation of a Community Advisory Panel. He writes:

This was an interesting exercise for a number of reasons. First, to the best of my knowledge, this was the biggest exercise ever done for ESF-10 (Hazardous Materials). Given what’s happening in the Gulf of Mexico right now, that’s simply amazing. Second, this is the first exercise I’ve ever heard of that dealt with the recovery phase. Most planners are so worried (and focused) on the immediate aftermath of a disaster that we never get around to planning what would happen after the sirens were turned off and the media went home. This is unfortunate because, ultimately, the success or failure of rebuilding from a disaster is predicated on actually rebuilding. One need only look at the gaping void in lower Manhattan to understand the infrastructure healing process that’s needed to help us recover.

The last reason I found the exercise interesting is really, I think, the most important. And it may have been included just because it’s standard operating procedure for USEPA, but the exercise planners made a real effort to simulate dealing with the public. And not in a “they’re panicky, lock ‘em up” kind of way. Inclusion of the public, both real and notional, took place in two different ways.

The first, and I would argue most important, was in the inclusion of a real-life Community Advisory Panel, or CAP. The CAP was comprised of 10 community leaders in Philadelphia. Each represented different parts of the city, different ethnicities, different business interests, different communities. They were briefed about the exercise scenario and were encouraged to attend the two scheduled Technical Advisory Panel (TAP) sessions, which were peopled with subject matter experts from the US Coast Guard, the US EPA, the PA DEP, the Phila Health Department, and a number of other experts who would be called upon in just such an emergency to help EPA develop a plan for remediating the affected area.

The TAP was charged with developing choices for how to proceed with cleanup priorities and contaminated waste storage. The CAP was then presented with those very same choices to make sure that the recommended course of action was palatable to the public – to the real public. And, amazingly to us planners, they not only reviewed all of the choices, but actually recommended their own choices based upon their knowledge of the community. By the end of the exercise, there was talk of the CAP members continuing to meet and discuss problems just like this. What an amazing outcome!

Garrow continues:

The final part of the exercise, while not actually involving the public, sought to teach those who would actually be responding how to interact with the public. A two hour “public meeting” was scheduled to give members of “the public” access to the TAP and Incident Commander. “The public” was played by EPA actors, who were mostly comprised of public affairs staff who regularly attend community meetings. They took their experiences at these meetings and asked the types of questions they’d heard asked of them. Sure, some were easy and the actors would let the experts off easy, but some asked impossible questions and some play-acted anger and frustration. Sitting on this “public meeting,” it was easy to see that the experts were quickly learning that standard dispassionate scientific term laden answers would not cut it in real life. Empathy, honesty, very detailed descriptions would be needed to help the public understand what was going on and unfortunately, that’s not practiced nearly enough.

All in all, it was an extremely fun exercise that included a dozen or so agencies from all levels of government, as well as esteemed members of the public, all in pursuit of something to hold onto in the unlikely, yet extremely dangerous scenario that was played. Congratulations and thank you to the USEPA planners. I know that I, as a planner, learned something about the conduct of exercises and how valuable including members of the public can really be. If not for the two elements discussed above, this exercise would have been ho-hum — just like every other full scale exercise I’d attended. The public made it real.

James, thanks for the interesting report.

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