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Ref: Florida coaltion of hospitals work to share information, training and resources

Palm Beach Post

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County coalition praised for disaster preparedness

By Phil Galewitz
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

FORT LAUDERDALE — Anthrax attacks. Hurricanes. Avian flu. Smallpox. Suicide bombers. Weapons of mass destruction.

Local, state and national emergency health officials gathered here Tuesday to discuss how far they've come in getting ready for these and still other unknown disasters. The two-day meeting concludes today.

"We are much better prepared than we were, but still not where we want to be," said Dr. John Krohmer, deputy chief medical officer of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. He made his comments after speaking at the conference sponsored by the Healthcare Emergency Access Coalition of Palm Beach County. About 75 people attended, including 30 from outside South Florida.

The coalition, which is made up of hospitals and more than a dozen county emergency response agencies such as the American Red Cross and the county Health Department, was formed immediately after Sept. 11 , 2001. The coalition's role took on more urgency four weeks later when the nation's first anthrax attack was confirmed in a patient at JFK Medical Center in Atlantis.

In the past five years, the coalition's members have met monthly to put together a detailed plan about how the local health community can respond to disasters. All of the county's hospitals have formally agreed to work together in preparing for and dealing with a disaster.

They've also set up a radio communication system so they can talk when telephones and cellular phones aren't working. In addition, the coalition has run several drills to simulate chemical terrorism and an evacuation for people living near Lake Okeechobee. The coalition is funded by the Palm Health Foundation.

During the conference at the Fort Lauderdale Marriott North, Krohmer praised the Palm Beach County effort, calling it a model for the nation. He stressed in his talk that cities and counties should expect to be on their own for at least the first 72 hours after a disaster. "You'll need to be ready to fend for yourselves," he said.

Three hurricanes that hit Palm Beach County in 2004 and 2005 helped pull community health leaders together, said Mary Russell, immediate past president of the county's response coalition and an official at Boca Raton Community Hospital. "You can do drills but it's nothing compared to the real thing," she said.

Judith Edwards, corporate director emergency preparedness for the hospital chain HCA Inc., said her company learned many lessons when it had to evacuate one of its New Orleans hospitals after Hurricane Katrina.

Since then, the company has helped its 180 hospitals, including five in Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast, stockpile drugs and equipment, set up ham radio operations and satellite phones and better deal with mental health issues during a disaster.

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