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August 1, 2008

APL Helps County Prepare Pandemic Plans

The Scenario: It's November 2008, and the World Health Organization has announced the first case of H5N1—avian flu—in the United States. Experts predict a case could make its way to Howard County within weeks or even days. There is no vaccine. Effects are expected to be far-reaching, from closings of schools and businesses to a rush on food, water, and medicine.

It could happen. And a full-blown pandemic could result in even graver scenarios—quarantines, community panic, looting, even limited space in morgues. That's why the Howard County Health Department formed an executive committee earlier this year to look at countywide pandemic influenza preparedness and response capabilities. 

Planning for a crisis is no easy task. Experts from government agencies, community organizations, and private businesses must be brought in. Training must be provided, and plans must be formed, evaluated, and tested.

That's where APL comes in. "The county came to us for help," explains Marvin Sikes, of the National Security Technology Department (NSTD), whose section supports preparedness and response programs in the Homeland Protection Business Area. "These representatives and executives are the experts in their areas; they have the knowledge, but few have ever designed or conducted an extensive exercise."

Sikes and another NSTD staffer met with the committee in February and began their partnership by teaching a 2-day Homeland Security Exercise Evaluation Program course. APL is now helping to steer an extensive 18-month effort in which the county's detailed response to a potential pandemic will be planned, presented, and tested. The key is not just managing the pandemic itself, Sikes says, but also what's called "continuity of operations," or COOP. Fundamental services—think grocery stores, trash collection, fire and police services, road maintenance, pharmacies—have to be ensured. 

"The bottom line is to prepare the county so it will continue to function and provide essential services," says Sikes, noting that unlike a tornado that may only affect a neighborhood, a pandemic would impact the entire county, potentially for several weeks.

APL team members created and are now coordinating a series of emergency preparedness exercises fashioned in a building-block approach—beginning with a discussion-based tabletop exercise facilitated and hosted by APL in the Warfare Analysis Laboratory on June 3. The event was successful, Sikes says, in identifying gaps and areas of improvement in the agencies' plans. Attended in force by county leaders, including the County Executive and Health Officer, senior decision-makers from other county and non-government agencies, and the chiefs of police and fire and rescue, the exercise encouraged open discussion of each group's plans in a no-fault setting. Other participants included representatives from the public school system, Howard County General Hospital, and the Community Emergency Response Network. 

County officials met on June 23 to present findings. An operations-based, functional exercise will follow in November, and the program will wrap up with a 2-day exercise next June in which county agencies and non-government organizations will respond to a full-blown scenario.