Kevin McCarthy, Security Debrief

Mar 13, 2009

National resilience is truly a community effort. I split my time between an office in DC and a home in the mountains of Utah, and one of the most important messages that Washington needs to learn these days is that resiliency begins at home.  Communities like mine across the country are studying, training and learning lessons about how to strengthen their ability to respond to disruptive events.  They aren’t sitting back waiting for the Federal Government to tell them what to do.  Furthermore, the Federal agencies could learn a lot from listening to what local communities have learned.

Friends are always asking my opinion on what is happening in the District, and I sometimes get the chance to help the locals gain insight into key homeland security issues that Washington thinks are important.  I was able to gain a great deal of knowledge when I participated in a recent exercise in Summit County, Utah that was designed to test the community’s ability to dispense medications in the event of a major disease outbreak like Pandemic Flu.     

Over this past weekend I was pleased to be asked to participate in a first-of-its-kind exercise.  The Summit County Utah Health Department’s Emergency Response Coordinator / Public Information Officer, working with state and local partners and Zions Bank, had designed and built an exercise to test a new method of dispensing emergency medications in the event of a major disease outbreak.  The idea was simple and resourceful: can drive-thru tellers at local banks be used as a safe and rapid means of delivering medications to the local population? The idea of using banks as a distribution point had been discussed in North Dakota but hadn’t been tested.  The Utah Department of Health heard of the idea and approached the Business Continuity Manger at Zions Bank, who happened to have managed the Public Health Preparedness Program for UDOH then moved on to become the Deputy Director of Homeland Security for the state prior to coming to the bank (like I said, the local communities know more than you think).

Summit County, as part of the Cities Readiness Initiative (CRI), realized that this would provide a great opportunity to not only fulfill some CRI requirements, but to also take part in something new and ground breaking. Katie Mullaly of Summit County Health Department worked with our major banking organization and effectively established a Public Private Partnership to test the concept.   Zions Bank, a major regional business with 128 branch banks in two states stepped right up to meet our communities’ emergency planning needs.

The concept was to test the feasibility of utilizing bank drive-through windows as a means of distributing medications to the community while keeping community members isolated from each other.  In two small Summit County towns, the population was asked to drive to the bank on Saturday, March 7, between 10 AM and noon.  As they lined up for the bank, a health worker met the car and gave them a questionnaire to complete. At the drive through, they placed the form in the pneumatic tube system, which then carried it into the bank.  Here nursing staff reviewed the form and dispensed the simulated medications.  In this case those simulated meds were U.S. gold one-dollar coins, one each for every child under 18 in the car.  The object was to test the viability of this as a distribution method and see if the community would accept it.  To the best of our knowledge, this has never been attempted in the U.S. previously. I would rate this first  exercise as a huge success.

There were many elements that made this practice run such a success.  The first of them was the enthusiastic support of Zions Bank.  The corporate president and many of his senior staff were hands-on participants for the entire event.  Sheriff’s deputies, along with the local police force and police officers from 15 miles away, joined forces to manage traffic and practice their own response to a major event.  County EMS workers were on scene at both banks as they would be for any significant public event.  Additional partners included county dispatch that tested their Code-Red reverse 911 system and local A.R.E.S. or ham radio operators. This was certainly more than just a Health Department exercise.

Additionally, the understanding and willingness of the community to to participate was substantial.  Citizens lined up so early that the start time was moved up 20 minutes and they kept the lanes open past the scheduled end time to accommodate the line.  Over the course of two and a half hours, almost 2,500 people were processed through the two banks.  This is the way community resilience is supposed to work.  There was no federal mandate or nebulous White House directive defining structure or procedures.  This method of interacting with the citizenry, from conception to full actualization, is a prime example of what collective thinking, planning and execution from committed groups -whether they be public or private – can do together. Partnerships like this are wonderful examples of where and how planning should evolve.

One feature of the test that I truly appreciated was seeing the calming effect on the citizens that resulted from  the presence of their teller’s familiar face at the window.  Summit County is a small community where friendships are measured in generations.  The bank has been in business for 135 years, and the tellers know everyone in town.  In an actual outbreak, seeing your neighbor passing out the meds instead of some government worker in fatigues and a mask will greatly reduce stress that is felt by the entire community.

All participants learned a lot in the exercises on Saturday.  There are things that will need to be fine-tuned with additional precautionary measures and additional equipment, but the opportunity to learn and practice was important.  Zions Bank took away many of their own new requirements, continuity of operations, and how they will deal with banking business if their facility is needed for emergency distribution during a business day.  Look for lessons learned from the “Drive-Thru for Safety” exercise.  Most importantly, as I return to the District I will carry the message: Resilience begins in the community.  We all need to get out and understand how the real world works.  Communities not only include the citizens, but also businesses, churches and civic groups. Even large multi-national corporations are part of communities and have an obligation to act responsibly.

Well done, Summit County.  Washington has a lot to learn from your innovation and resiliency.


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