One of the earliest tests of New Jersey’s post-9/11 readiness came less than a year after the terrorist attacks and the anthrax scare of 2001. As state health commissioner right after 9/11, Dr. Clifton R. Lacy had helped design a medical rapid-response system to handle biological attacks and infectious disease outbreaks. A network of medical experts could quickly get anywhere in the state they were needed to provide a firsthand diagnosis.
Responding to a possible biological attack is not what Lacy was thinking of late in the day on July 4, 2002. He was relaxing at home when a call came in from an emergency room doctor at a hospital in Hammonton who had admitted a migrant farm worker showing symptoms compatible with smallpox. Despite the unlikely possibility of smallpox—which has been almost completely eradicated with only a few sample strains existing in secure laboratories—Lacy, a medical doctor, believed “the potential ramifications of such an outbreak necessitated immediate and definitive action.”
Less than two hours after the initial call, Dr. John R. Middleton, a leading expert on infectious diseases, was contacted and taken by helicopter from University Medical Center in Newark to the Hammonton hospital, where he personally examined the farm worker. He determined that the man had a virulent form of chicken pox, not smallpox.
“It turned out not to be a biological threat to the state,” Lacy says, “but the incident allowed us to test our system, and we found that the system was quite robust.”
Since 2001, the state’s ability to respond to a terrorist attack has been vastly improved. There is now a state-of-the-art command center at the Health Department in Trenton that is linked to nine regional control centers for quick, coordinated and integrated response to a range of potential disasters. The state has also established several strategically located stockpiles of emergency medicines, assembled a fleet of decontamination trailers and conducted hundreds of emergency-response exercises.
When the antennae on the twin towers were destroyed in 2001, much of the state’s emergency communications system was knocked out. To prevent that from happening again, Lacy directed the implementation of a new communications network designed to be practically fail-safe. That system is in place today, with 800 MHz two-way radios interconnecting each of the state’s 82 acute-care medical facilities, along with more than a dozen government agencies, each with their own antennae and back-up generators that can provide uninterrupted communication in the event of a catastrophe.
Charles McKenna of the state’s Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness, says real progress has been made, but there are still gaps. To eliminate them, New Jersey is developing a wireless communications system that will operate throughtout the northern part of the state and enable emergency services to talk to one another after an attack or a natural disaster. Estimated cost: $37 million.
That kind of progress may be threatened by complacency and budget cuts at the federal and state levels. “We’ve made an enormous amount of progress in the last 10 years, but threats continue to evolve, and our preparedness efforts need to evolve with them,” Lacy says. Close to half a billion dollars in homeland-security grants has come from the federal government since 2006, but funds for planning and security are now being scaled back. “As money gets tighter, we have to learn how to do more with less,” McKenna says. “But we can’t do less.”