Saturday, August 24, 2002

Psychiatrist forms emergency plan

Terror attack would overwhelm mental health system

By Andrew Welsh-Huggins
The Associated Press

        COLUMBUS - Dr. Marion Sherman is recruiting volunteers she hopes she never has to call.

        She is collecting names of fellow psychiatrists willing to offer mental health services in case of a terrorist attack or disaster in Ohio.

        A February report by the Department of Mental Health concluded that an event similar to the Sept. 11 attacks or the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing would overwhelm Ohio's behavioral health system, including psychological, psychiatric and counseling services.

        The report was one of several projects the state undertook to study the potential dangers facing Ohio and be sure communities could react as swiftly as possible.

        “Unfortunately with the budgetary problems in public mental health systems, we don't have the ability to currently meet those projected needs,” said Dr. Sherman, of Columbus.

        Eleven months after Sept. 11, Ohio is secure but not immune to an assault, Gov. Bob Taft said.

        “I believe we are safe. Are we invulnerable to a terrorist act? No,” he said. “Will we ever be? Probably not.”

        Officials held months of meetings, passed bills, created a security task force and applied for millions in federal money to fight terrorism.

        Yet much of what the state did was either invisible to Ohioans or has had a negligible impact to date.

        In May, for example, the governor held a public ceremony to sign the state's new anti-terrorism bill, which defines acts of terrorism and increases the penalties.

        The law's effect is unclear: Federal law would still trump Ohio law in the prosecution of terrorism, and many of the potential acts it covers - murdering people in an attack, for example - are already illegal.

        Supporters say the bill was needed because state law mentioned only terrorism.

        Some proposals were put in place quickly. Since January, police officers who see something suspicious can access a database of terrorism alerts from the federal government.

        “It won't tell me, "OK, that funny-looking tractor is criminal activity,”' said Kenneth Morckel, superintendent of the Ohio State Highway Patrol. “It will tell me at the federal level that those types of tractors are equipment we need to be on the lookout for.”

        Other initiatives gave existing proposals new life.

        For years, fire officials had pushed to allow fire departments overwhelmed by a disaster to contact a central state office for help.

        Mr. Taft announced the creation of such a system in December. Now, a fire chief can call a single number and find out what assistance is available instead of calling dozens of departments to negotiate for equipment and personnel.

        “It's an issue of 1,300 phone numbers versus one,” said Bill Teets, a state fire marshal spokesman.

        Money is now available to counties for disaster equipment.

        In Butler County, officials spent about $110,000 on biohazard suits, boots and gloves, and on devices to detect chemical contamination.

        “I don't know if anybody could ever be ready to respond to such an event,” said William Turner, the county's emergency management director. “Look at a city the size of New York with the resources it had.”

        One of the state's most ambitious projects is to create a database of potential high-tech targets. Proposed in March, that project is still under way, said Lt. Gov. Maureen O'Connor, director of the state's security task force.

        Disaster preparation doesn't happen overnight or even over a year, she said. “We are looking at this for the long haul.”

        The Mental Health Department concluded that local mental health boards, already stretched thin, would be hit hard by a disaster, said Joseph Hill, the department's manager of risk administration.

        In response, the department is working with Dr. Sherman to create the pool of volunteer psychiatrists.

        “We're trying to get a big enough list of persons so we don't undermine services that currently need to happen,” Mr. Hill said.


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