New York Chemical Tests: Public Communication Key

August 8th, 2013 by CHHS RAs

By Christina Lauderdale, CHHS Extern

On June 20, 2013, ten hospitals in Maryland performed a medical surge exercise. Staff members from CHHS developed the scenario and were present at each participating hospital to evaluate how well hospital staff responded to the mock disaster scenario. At certain hospitals, the exercise also included a hazmat situation, where several patients were exposed to an unknown chemical following a fictional train derailment in Rockville.

As an evaluator, I witnessed hospital staff preparing for the possible hazmat situation by dressing in hazmat suits, arranging the outdoor decontamination area, and establishing an effective chain of command. In the event of a real-life emergency, these steps are important to ensure that the potentially contaminated patients do not infect the rest of the staff or other areas of the hospital.

On three separate days this July, the New York Police Department (NYPD) released an odorless and colorless gas into the New York City (NYC) subway system to determine how the gases would disburse throughout the city if there was a chemical attack or accidental release of a hazardous material. The exercise was funded by a grant from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) at a cost of about $3 million. Although this exercise included the NYPD and other law enforcement and emergency personnel, like CHHS’ hospital exercise in June, it also affected an entirely different group of people: the public.

The project was first announced publically in April, with the initial test taking place the morning of July 9, 2013.  Air measuring devices, which appear as black boxes, were placed throughout the subway system and on lamp posts across the city leading up to the test. Each box included a phone number and website where the public could obtain more information on the exercise.

According to the NYPD, the nontoxic, odorless, and invisible gas is being used in the largest urban-airflow study ever. Raymond W. Kelly, NYPD Commissioner, recalled that forty percent of terrorist plots around the world focused on transportation systems, including NYC’s subway system. Kelly also addressed the potential effects of the gas, stating it was a substance commonly used to inflate the lungs of infants.

The need for these tests was made clear – but did the City do enough to communicate with the public prior to and during the tests?

The drill left some NYC citizens concerned. A 27 year-old subway rider told the New York Times that he was startled to find a black box (containing the gas for the air study) under his chair at the underground subway station. Although the boxes contained labels, in the days of “see something, say something,” it appeared suspicious. Others have gone so far as to say that New Yorkers are being experimented upon without their consent. They also say that there is a lack of oversight at the study from local and national health agencies. A No Spray Coalition based in Brooklyn, claims exposure to perfluorocarbons can cause infertility in women, birth defects, and even liver and thyroid damage.

While the effects of the gasses used during the NYC tests are still up for debate, the concerns raised illustrate the need to include the public in planned drills as much as possible. During the CHHS hospital exercise, communication was key. The public and normal visitors to the hospital were aware of the exercise because a large yellow sign that stated “drill in progress” was visible. On the TVs throughout the hospital, a display stated “Code Yellow” or “Code Purple” for the event and there were overhead announcements that an exercise was in progress.

CHHS also worked with hospital participants to develop and distribute an advisory, and to alert media and citizens about the potential for increased activity at area hospitals. The public never seemed to be concerned with what was occurring, even when they saw hospital staff in hazmat suits. Letting the public know information first is the best way to get them involved and to make them aware that a drill is in progress. It can also be a life-saving lesson for real emergencies in the future.

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