Tuesday, June 17, was an important day for Santa Barbara County healthcare providers. Communication between five county hospitals, the Public Health Department, and the Sheriff’s Department had never before been tested, making it the first time that all of their emergency operations centers were open at the same time. Through e-mails, phone calls, and faxes, these departments spent three hours communicating as part of a pandemic influenza exercise. Many people were interested to find out if communication would work without a glitch.
The operations center at the Public Health Department held five stations, each with their own responsibilities: operations, plans, finance, logistics, director, and chiefs. The county emergency operations center was in a different room, where a group composed of representatives from each county department met to work together from one location. The exercise simulated an influenza pandemic that traveled over the course of a few weeks from Southeast Asia to the United States, where outbreaks occurred all over the country, including every county in California. Tuesday was the second day of mock mass deaths in Santa Barbara County, and the operations center needed to communicate with its partners to make a plan on how to handle numerous deaths nationwide, including burials and cremations, public information issues, care for family members, scarce resources, and finding alternate care locations if hospitals became full.
Kim Loyst, a member of the logistics branch in the exercise, felt that the Public Health Department would be ready in an actual crisis. “Our department puts a lot of effort and planning into training,” she said. Her job in the exercise was fixing computer and phone problems, the same job she would have were there to be a real-life emergency. Communications branch manager for logistics Darrin Eisenbarth-who has a military background and experience in logistics-made sure that internal communication worked before focusing on external communication. “There’s more time to respond in reality. It is less stressful, and there is more time to think.”
Jan Kroeger, the program administrator of the pandemic influenza exercise, explained that the exercise is funded by the federal program from Centers for Disease Control www.cdc.gov/. “The exercise went really well, all the players were engaged, and it was a great opportunity for them to play their role,” Kroeger said. She also said that suggestions were made on how to improve communication. Kroeger explained that there were two areas they need to improve the most. One is making sure they have the ability to receive information from other departments faster, and the other is communicating better with clinics and hospitals to find out what services are available. Also, coordinating with these partners to make sure that messages go out to the public through the media in a timely matter is extremely important, Kroeger remarked.