Routine Haz-mat

Trauma care may be in trouble, but if you're exposed to anthrax, help is just an inflatable tent away.

As weird times go, we've hit a few fresh benchmarks lately, from the freakish attacks of paradise-seeking sadists to anti-civil rights rampages by Attorney General John "Blood and Guts" Ashcroft.

And now Dr. Strangelove has pitched camp in the shadows of University Medical Center.

Indeed, nobody would mistake this faded patch of asphalt behind a towering midtown hospital for the lonesome prairie. That's why it's a bit disconcerting to see a team of Tucson firemen goosing an inflatable orange and black tent with the business end of an air hose.

Around them mingle hospital staffers who wandered down here in groups of twos and threes. A few months back, most would probably have watched this demonstration with a touch of boredom and post-lunch fatigue. Today, however, the scene evokes all the urgency of a bus rider's bursting bladder.

Fully inflated, the puffy decontamination tent becomes a nylon gauntlet for unfortunate souls who might get doused with nasty chemicals or God-knows-what-else. The stricken start beneath a shower, then splash into a shallow wading pool before entering the tent, where they're wiped down and sent packing.

"This demonstration is to teach our emergency department to erect a portable decontamination system," explains Dan Judkin, UMC's trauma coordinator. If there's a "big incident," he says, firemen and police will be at ground zero. In the meantime, most citizens will be heading toward local hospitals. And they won't be in the mood for interminable emergency room waits.

According to battalion chief Les Caid of the Tucson Fire Department, running the afflicted through outdoor "decon" tents will keep contaminated hordes from infecting hospital wards.

That's the creepy news. The good news: Despite heavy criticism of America's overall crisis management blueprints, Tucson seems well ahead of the national curve in preparing for wide-scale bio-chemical terrorism.

Admittedly, this provides only fragile comfort. It was FDR who said we had nothing to fear but fear itself. But Cervantes was closer to the mark. "Fear has many eyes," he wrote in Don Quixote, "and can see things underground."

We now glimpse threats everywhere, from exotic neighbors with tawny complexions to lumpy mailings that might contain a dried rose--or perhaps deadly spores than can dance by the millions on a pinhead.

On the receiving end of our well-earned security neurosis are these emergency wonks--Judkin, Caid and his ilk--along with other area fire and police departments.

THE LOCAL CRISIS network has mushroomed under a federal program called the Metropolitan Medical Response System, or MMRS, now already several years old. "In 1995, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services started assigning metropolitan medical strike teams," Caid says. "They were designed to respond to a weapons-of-mass-destruction event."

America's most populous cities--Phoenix, New York, Seattle, L.A.--were first in line for the program. Next came second-level burgs, including Tucson. "Then in 1999 we signed a contract to develop an enhancement to respond to weapons of mass destruction," Caid says.

The "tentacles" of such operations "really spread out through the entire community," he says, and enhancements include plans to handle "mass casualties from bio-terrorism and nuclear attacks."

It's certainly a massive undertaking.

Through the MMRS, Tucson bought state-of-the art software to streamline networking for everything from demolition crews and construction equipment to the Pima County Office of Emergency Management. Area medicos will likewise be plugged in. Federal funds also covered extra equipment for hazardous-materials teams across the valley, including the decon tents.

Authorities are now geared for what Caid calls a "tiered response. If something happens in the city, the Tucson Fire Department haz-mat team responds," he says. "If it's beyond our capability--if we realize it's a terrorist event--Pima County's haz-mat team comes in with their trailer and equipment, and right there we have enough to take care of 750 patients.

"At the same time we've given hospitals the ability to perform emergency decontamination with showers and tents, because 50 to 60 percent of people at a mass casualty scene will leave that scene and show up at hospitals."

In a crisis, all these activities will be directed from a "unified command post," Caid says, manned by local law enforcement and emergency officials.

They'll be toting a weighty burden. "This has to be a stand-alone plan for the first 48 hours before the federal government comes in," he says. "The only help we're going to be receiving in that first 48 hours is from the national pharmaceutical stockpile."

FORTUNATELY, EVEN AS local agencies hash out their emergency roles, anxiety from the World Trade Center and anthrax attacks have eased somewhat, according to Sgt. Judy Altieri of the Tucson Police Department. "It's really calmed down for us," she says, adding that TPD was initially getting dozens of calls a day from panicked citizens.

This slowdown is welcome, Altieri says, following the flashy crisis at KGUN-TV headquarters in early October, when a producer opened a letter laced with white powder that later proved harmless. But the hoax rattled everyone. "It was quite an event. After that we had to come with up with a system for handling those calls, because we couldn't respond to every one we received in that manner."

Down-sized responses "depend upon whether we consider an exposure" to be involved, she says. "If there's no exposure, there's no need to call the fire department. But if a situation potentially needs decontamination, we handle those calls in conjunction with the fire department and our own Explosive Ordnance Detail."

At the Pima County Sheriff's Department, Capt. Frank Duarte heads up the command for emergency preparedness. After the first anthrax scare, the department "was handling up to 30-plus calls a day," he says, "but it's leveled off. Now we get maybe 30 a week.

"Here's the crux of the whole matter," Duarte says. "The people that have been targeted have been news media, and postal workers who have gotten (anthrax) as a result of handling the mail. So it seems to me unless you are a person of some notoriety, you're probably not going to have any problems.

"The goal of the terrorists is to get the most bang for their buck, such as blowing up a ship or blowing up buildings. Now with this anthrax, they've gone after big media figures. Why? Because it's big media exposure. There's no evidence that they're going after ordinary individuals."

But that doesn't give anyone license to rest easy--not hugely influential media organs like the Tucson Weekly, or garden variety Tucsonans who don't grace the spotlight.

"As Americans, I think we got a little complacent," says TFD's Caid, "kind of living in that little dream world where we were never going to be touched by outside forces. And I think we kind of got away from a sense of community. We were very isolated, our own little islands. That is very clearly not the case anymore.

"I guess you could say that out of evil, we see some goodness coming from all of this."

Back at UMC, the decon tent has thankfully been deflated. Now, reminiscent of most outdoor adventures, the crowd is bickering over the best method for packing it away. "I thought you said to fold in halves," says one impatient staffer. "No, it gets folded in thirds," proclaims another.

Finally the doomsday apparatus is tucked, poked and prodded into a long nylon sack. Then the hospital workers trek back to their routine tasks, in a world where the routine no longer exists.

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