Public Health Preparedness & Response

First Responders and Public Health Laboratories: Ensuring Safe Communities

By Anthony Barkey, MPH, Senior Specialist, Public Health Preparedness and Response, APHL

Imagine this: it is 10:00am on Monday morning and a first responder’s phone rings calling the team out to a potentially hazardous situation. The initial report is that a large box left outside of a major airport is leaking an unknown substance. The team arrives, puts on protective gear, creates a perimeter and decides what to do next. Upon initial inspection, the package seems out of place and a substantial amount of thick liquid is oozing from the bottom. No one has reported illness yet, but the fumes are beginning to be quite noticeable. It is quickly determined that testing needs to be done. Field Device X is brought out of the vehicle, started up according to protocol and used to test the leaking material. The first test indicates a weak positive. It is rerun, and the sample is negative. Three more successive tests conclude negative, positive, positive. At this point, the terminal has been shut down for 30 minutes and a decision needs to be made about what to do next. Thousands of travelers’ safety and schedules depend on the decision that is made from those tests. What do you do?

In keeping with the theme of safety for National Public Health Week, APHL is thinking about the preparedness point of view.  When the average person hears the word “safety,” images of orange signs proclaiming “Caution: Wet Floor” pop up.  When asked to think about laboratory safety, it conjures up thoughts of eye protection and gloves.  These are two very good ideas of what safety can be, but they only scratch the surface of what laboratory safety entails.  Laboratories influence public health and safety at levels beyond this through their own safe practices, and through outreach to the men and women of the first responder communities.

Every day an event is occurring somewhere around the country and this triggers a response matrix.  In the case of an event with an unknown substance, screening and testing need to occur to determine if an area is safe or not.  From a safety standpoint, it is important to know the specifications and limitations of field devices and who your partners are.

Getting back to the scenario above, first and foremost, direct communication between PHLs and first responders is needed. If the first conversation between the two groups is occurring during the event, the chances of a mistake increase dramatically. The laboratory is a resource for scientific information, and the first responders provide a true field account that will only enhance confirmatory laboratory testing. With both communities working toward the same goals, the prospect of achieving improvements to both safety and quality grows exponentially. In its latest preparedness publication, APHL offers potential solutions on enhancing the first responder and laboratory relationship to further foster a culture of safety, rapid response and quality testing and ultimately safer communities.

At APHL, we are dedicated to serving the needs of our membership and working to safeguard the public’s health and safety. Field screening is a topic that touches our membership nationwide and is an important priority for the Association.

Leave a Comment

Subscribe to get updates delivered to your inbox.