Friday, October 19, 2001

HazMat team changes response to calls

Reports of suspect powder pour in

By Kristina Goetz and Tim Bonfield
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The Cincinnati Fire Division's Hazardous Materials team is changing its response to calls about suspected anthrax, and state health officials have prioritized lab testing procedures.

        HazMat teams have responded to more than 40 calls in the city since Monday — jamming the Ohio Department of Health, where samples are sent for testing.

        “People are afraid,” said District Fire Chief Fred Prather. “They see what happened to Congress and they're concerned: "Is this going to happen to me?'

        “But we have had no problems here yet.”

        Most of the calls, he said, have been for white substances that have turned out to be things such as makeup or foot powder.

        So dispatchers will now take detailed information and send a district chief, staff officer and an engine company to the scene first.

        “If the situation warrants, they'll call for the HazMat team,” Chief Prather said. “If it seems like a definite HazMat situation then they will respond.”

        The Ohio Department of Health, which has the expertise to analyze mysterious powders for signs of anthrax, has been swamped with requests the past several days.

        Through Wednesday, the department had received more than 350 samples to test, 80 of which arrived on Wednesday alone.

        Already working two shifts a day and calling in lab personnel from several parts of the health department, state officials have established a priority system to manage the overload.

        Samples that are submitted by the FBI, or have been determined by that agency to involve credible threats, are getting highest priority. That means initial test results can be provided within six hours, said spokesman Jay Carey.

        Other samples will be considered “routine” priority, which means results may take as long as five days, depending on how busy the lab becomes.

        So far, none of the Ohio samples has revealed signs of anthrax.

        Meanwhile, questions about anthrax are slowing down. The health department's bioterrorism information line took 140 calls Wednesday, down from 275 calls the day before, Mr. Carey said.

        Callers have included people asking about anthrax symptoms, police, fire departments and medical professionals seeking technical data, and even teachers asking for information they can share with their classes.


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