Operations Center answers the call in the ice storm

FRANKFORT — On Jan. 29, a call came into the state's Department for Public Health Operations Center with the plea for bottled water in Ballard County. It was one in a long line of ice storm-related requests, some large and involved and encompassing, some small and contained. This one was somewhere in the middle.

Still, the operations center had been up and running for almost three full days by then and was, at that point, a well-oiled machine. So the call was numbered and logged into the correct computer file with its details standing out in a field of bright red — the code signifying that it still needed attention. Then it was routed to the correct service folder via e-mail. This time, to logistics, two tables over.

It would have been as easy to yell the request, something that early on in the crisis was, in fact, done. But not now. Now, the number of requests was so large and so varied, and the well-thought-out process so efficient and effective, the flow chart so exact and the tracking so precise that everybody in the room trusted it.

Within seconds, the right people knew that Ballard County needed water. Logistics folks got to work on it. And in less than 24 hours, the county would have all it needed. That was because Logistics had immediately called around and found Flavor Rich Dairy in London who said, yes, absolutely, we can bottle you 17,000 gallons of water. Come and get some of our water, too, said Winchester Farms Dairy and Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Middlesboro and High Bridge Spring Water out of Wilmore.

Over the last 10 days, thousands of requests have data-streamed through this big room in the Health and Family Services Cabinet building where 30 people Thursday still took a constant influx of calls assisting the public health response of the state's 120 counties, every one of the state's still operating emergency shelters, all of its 1,500 Medical Reserves Corps volunteers and anybody else they could find to fix the medical and health crises that too much ice and too little warmth can cause.

No need to suffer

The first order of business was to get satellite phones to Western Kentucky, says Dr. William Hacker, Commissioner of the Department for Public Health. By late Wednesday, 150 of the state's public health officers were there, relaying back to Frankfort what was needed. The 14 Regional Surge Trailers — each with 14 cots aboard — were equipped and on the road.

By Friday, says Hacker, it became clear a lot of makeshift shelters had been set up in video stores and gas stations in rural Western Kentucky. Margo Riggs, a lieutenant commander with the U.S. Public Health Service embedded in Kentucky, reported back.

"People didn't need to suffer," says Riggs, who relayed to the busy public health war room her requests for transporting those in temporary shelter to safety.

By the end of the week, 50 more public health workers from out of state were dispatched west from Frankfort, and thousands of requests had been processed. Pretty amazing, given that the Department of Operations room was being used for the first time.

It was the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001 that alerted the nation to the need to fund the kind of technology on display here, explains Hacker. It was the lack of communication on that day that made everyone acutely aware that this was not the way to run a country. It explains the financial outlay for fancy technology and the satellite phones, the blessing of out-of-state help and that odd observation that bureaucracy is not something to be scoffed at. Because here in this room is where the Incident Command System, a national system of categorizing crises by chain of command and task assignment, has had its finest hour.

'You have to be calm'

The Department for Public Health Operations Center is much calmer today than it was last week, says Dr. Kraig Humbaugh, the center's operating chief.

"On Day 10, you have to be calm," he says, smiling.

All around him, all manner of sticky notes and legal pads hold handwritten reminders, phone numbers and directives. On the white board at the front of the room are one set of contacts. On another in the middle, a second list for public viewing. On the video monitor, a rolling Web screen. On the TV, CNN and the governor talking about peanut butter.

Phones continue to ring

Every day since the storm, every available county public health director has been on a conference call with the operations center at 11 a.m. New requests for assistance are made. Counties can offer assistance to one another, too, which expedites some services getting through.

"I can't say enough about every local health department and their staff in every county in Kentucky," says Hacker.

Still, Hacker is worried more each day about carbon monoxide poisoning, fires, even whatever contagious diseases might be brewing in the close quarters of shelters.

Every day since the storm, every state public health director in Region 4, which is mostly Southern states, convenes at 2 p.m. on conference call, to see what they can do to help Kentucky. Despite all this help, challenges remain.

Starting Friday, the Centers for Disease Control will being visiting 630 households far western rural counties to get a snapshot of their power and food needs and their stress levels as the crisis transitions from emergency response to recovery response.

The operation center will stay open as long as the calls continue to come in, says department spokesperson Gwenda Bond.

In the meantime, the Department of Public Health will have more work cut out for it in Western Kentucky. It still will have to inspect every restaurant and every school cafeteria before they reopen.

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