UAB is one of 14 emergency response learning centers

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Most people don’t like to think about the worst-case scenario, but there are some whose job it is to plan for it and prepare others to respond to it.

This is the work of Peter Ginter, Ph.D., Lisa McCormick, Dr.P.H., and Andrew Rucks, Ph.D., in the School of Public Health.

response_center“We tend to be looked at as the doomsday folks,” Ginter says. “Everybody asks us, ‘What should we look out for this week?’”

UAB faculty and staff have been training organizations and first responders — ranging from law enforcement officials to first receivers to veterinarians — for a decade through the Center for Public Health Preparedness (CPHP). The organization includes a partnership with Tulane University and the states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

A new five-year, $937,000-per-year grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) enhances the profile of the group by establishing the new Preparedness and Emergency Response Learning Centers (PERLC). The grant — in which the CDC awarded $13 million to 14 accredited schools of public health — will support public health and workforce training.

UAB’s South Central PERLC will assist in building national capacity in preparedness and response training and education to meet the needs of the U.S. public health workforce. It also will provide unique workforce-development assistance to state, local and tribal public health authorities.

“This is a significant grant in that it enables us to stay involved with the preparedness community,” says Ginter, professor and chair of Health Care Organization & Policy. “We will continue to work closely with public health emergency preparedness and response in three states by offering training and assistance to public health professionals and other emergency responders.”

The new South Central PERLC will replace the CPHP, which had been in existence for eight years. UAB’s School of Public Health partnership with Tulane University’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine will continue as part of the PERLC grant. Within the partnership, the group maintains a preparedness center, a public health training center and a leadership institute that teaches public health workers how to be better managers and leaders.

Partnering with tribal nations

A unique aspect is that tribal partners, including the Mississippi Band of Choc-taw Indians and the Poarch Band of Creek Indians of Alabama, are included for the first time.

The South Central PERLC also is partnering with the United South and Eastern Tribes to conduct an intertribal planning conference — a need cemented in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, when the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians reservation suffered a great deal of damage.

“The state of Mississippi’s resources were mostly allocated on the Gulf Coast and unavailable to help communities further north immediately following Katrina’s landfall,” says McCormick, assistant professor of Health Care Organization & Policy. “The Choctaws were able to call on other tribal nations in the region to bring resources such as generators and other essentials needed on the reservation.”

Now, the South Central PERLC will help them establish mutual aid agreements and memorandums of understanding with each other to ensure a strong working relationship.

“This means during times of crisis, they will have a formal channel available to call on each other for assistance when state or federal aid is not immediately available,” McCormick says. “That’s something that’s never been done in this part of the country.”

Planning experience

The PERLC will continue working with various state agencies to develop response plans.

Alabama Gov. Bob Riley directed all state agencies to develop All Hazards Continuity of Operations Plans two years ago, and UAB’s group was a leader in establishing protocols to assist.

“We assisted the Alabama Department of Public Health and the Alabama Emergency Management Agency by creating a template and providing training,” says Rucks, associate professor of Public Health. “If there is an influenza pandemic or any kind of disaster that exacerbates absenteeism or denies access to facilities, how would they remain in operation? How would they keep delivering services and keep serving the public? It’s important for government agencies and other agencies that deliver vital services to remain in operation in the event of any kind of disaster. We try to help them prioritize their services and keep those that are critical functioning.”

The PERLC also has aided in other areas, including developing a surge network for pediatrics due to the limited capacity of children’s hospitals in the Southeast. The Presidential Commission on Children and Disasters recently recommended an increase in focus on regional surge capacity — something the PERLC has been establishing for several years. A network and organization to link pediatric specialty hospitals in Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, Florida and Louisiana will enable them to work with regional hospitals to care for children.

“Pediatric hospitals tend to operate at 90 to 95 percent capacity at all times, so there’s very little surplus capacity to deal with disasters and emergencies — even small ones like a school bus accident,” Rucks says. “This network is intended to provide a formal mechanism for specialty and regional hospitals to share resources and provide the capacity to deal with an emergency.”

The brunt of the PERLC’s work focuses on preparedness such as this, with a fundamental mission to build capacity in the public health and responder communities.

They do this through face-to-face trainings, online courses and training, satellite broadcasts, webcasts and podcasts. They deliver training in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana and conduct traveling, full-functional exercises often involving local responders. They provide training on disasters ranging from a bus accident involving children to chemical spills and earthquake response. They also invite national experts to aid in training in certain specialized areas, including in the area of school violence.

For more on the South Central PERLC, including a list of online courses and upcoming activities, visit www.southcentralpartnership.org.

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