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REGION

Shared emergency center hailed as model for state

By Connie Paige
Globe Correspondent / March 29, 2009
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A regional coalition has set up a new emergency public health command center at Stoneham Town Hall that will be able to spring into action around the clock and direct teams trained to respond to any disaster in Stoneham and four neighboring communities, as well as provide training for those responders.

The Mystic Valley Coalition Emergency Preparedness Command Center/Training Facility is the kind of local initiative that public health officials are encouraging statewide in order to strengthen collaboration among agencies during disasters such as a flood, flu pandemic, food-borne illness outbreak, fire, chemical spill, or a nuclear, chemical, or biological threat, officials said.

"It's important in emergencies that communities plan on how they will work together and how they will share information, and an emergency center will help them do that," said Mary Clark, director of the Emergency Preparedness Bureau at the state Department of Public Health.

The Mystic Valley Coalition is among a myriad of federal, state, regional, and local agencies set up after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to help prepare for and handle a catastrophe and its aftermath.

The state is divided into seven public health emergency-preparedness regions and coalitions within the regions. Most communities in Massachusetts now have a medical reserve corps, a group of people with skills related to health care, and citizen volunteers trained to help in emergencies. Cities and towns also have emergency shelters and police and fire emergency-management protocols that include public health professionals.

What they don't have is a place exclusively devoted to the public health response in an emergency, and the command center in Stoneham - the first of its kind in the state - is designed to provide that for Malden, Medford, Melrose, Stoneham, and Wakefield. The center, due to open tomorrow, will allow the region's public health officials to coordinate with each other and police and fire in their communities, as well as with federal, state, and regional emergency management teams.

Local officials said it would have helped to have such a center in 2004, when an employee at the popular Stoneham restaurant J.J. Grimsby's was found to have hepatitis A, a contagious liver disease. When notified about it, local officials had to figure out how to warn the estimated hundreds of restaurant patrons from Stoneham and surrounding communities who might have had contact with the employee and been infected, they said.

Christopher Webb, spokesman for the Mystic Valley Coalition, said that without a coordinated response capability at the time, each community separately had to try to locate the victims and ensure they reached a clinic set up to administer vaccinations.

"With this new facility, we'll be able to do it there," said Webb, who is Malden's public health agent.

Whether the disaster be a food-borne illness outbreak or a nuclear, chemical, or biological attack, the command center will allow a new focus on public health, said Robert F. Bracey, Stoneham's public health agent. He said the center will be equipped with banks of computers and hand-held radios so officials can remain in communication via the Internet or by voice at all times with colleagues and officials in other roles, such as police or firefighters.

Bracey said he also hopes police, fire, and other emergency responders from the five communities will train at the center, located in the town hall basement.

He said local officials in the five communities have been planning the new center for about six months. With a total cost of about $75,000 to $100,000, the center was funded out of the $180,000 annual grants to the coalition from the federal Centers for Disease Control, he said. The cost was kept down because Stoneham donated the use of the town hall space. Bracey said a local contractor, Ben Caggiano, contributed thousands of dollars worth of interior carpentry and electric wiring to finish the center.

Caggiano said he wanted to act as "as a good Samaritan" to the town where his business is located. "God forbid we ever did have a disaster, but we'd know what to do," said Caggiano, owner of Wescor Ltd. "It's kind of investing ahead of time in the future."

Clark said since 9/11, emergency-preparedness officials have stressed the need for communities and regions to collaborate with each other and coordinate responses to disasters from all the disciplines. "I think the planning beforehand helps everyone truly understand what their role will be in any sort of hazard," she said.

She said she believes the state public health agency, which oversees local health departments and funnels the federal funding to them, would applaud duplication of the center elsewhere.

"We would, I think, if it were planned out as well as the Mystic Valley one was," she said. "They did a lot of research and collaborative planning, so they were well organized when they came forward. That's the sort of model we believe others could follow."

Connie Paige can be reached at connie_paige@yahoo.com.

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