Guest opinion: Post-9/11 lessons help protect public health today

2011-09-11T00:05:00Z Guest opinion: Post-9/11 lessons help protect public health today

By JOHN FELTON

The Billings Gazette
September 11, 2011 12:05 am  • 

Our nation’s history is marked by a small number of events so significant that uttering a few words immediately moves our collective perception to vivid, shared and unifying memories. Consider these simple words and your reaction: One if by land, two if by sea; the Great Depression; Pearl Harbor; the Challenger; Hurricane Katrina; 9/11. It is uniquely American to simultaneously honor such events as part of our long-term national memory while at the same time learn from them, become a better nation, and move forward with the optimism that so clearly defines the American character.

On Sept. 11, 2001 our world changed forever. We were stunned, horrified, and knocked down, but as always, set aside our minor differences and as a single nation came together , not as Republicans, Democrats, Easterners, Westerners, haves, and have-nots but as Americans. And as united Americans we mourned our dead and honored our heroes. We learned, we became a better nation, and we moved forward.

Investing in preparedness

As your county health officer, I am proud to say that RiverStone Health, and the public health community, has also learned from the experiences of 9/11. And on the 10th anniversary of that life-changing day it seems fitting to share with you what public health has learned and where we stand.

As Hurricane Irene recently approached the Eastern Seaboard, we were told of a three-phase approach including preparation, response, and recovery. Perhaps there is no more pervasive public health impact of the events of 9/11 than preparation. The widely recognized, dramatic improvements we saw in preparation for Irene compared to the experience with Katrina, just six years earlier, is a testament to the effects of investing in preparedness.

In the last 10 years we have evolved from a singular, post-9/11 focus on preparedness against anthrax and other bioterrorism threats to the concept of all-hazards preparedness. We recognize that if the public health system is prepared to deal with any threat — whether pandemic influenza, a bioterrorism attack, or even a crude oil spill in the Yellowstone River — we are safer and will suffer less death and injury regardless of the type of event we encounter.

Members of the public health system — state and local public health agencies, hospitals, elected and appointed government officials, public safety first responders, the media, and a variety of local, state, and federal agencies — work together, train together, and plan together so that when the time comes we can respond in a unified and coordinated fashion to meet the threat, mitigate its effects, and facilitate a rapid recovery. Through one of President George W. Bush’s most far-reaching (though perhaps seemingly not-too-exciting) executive orders, all responding agencies use common structures and common terminology so we can come together and speak the same language in pursuit of the same objectives.

Vigilance required

Preparedness requires time and human effort, and those resources require money. In some respects, preparedness is like a national health and safety insurance policy for which we pay premiums while we do not use it but with the full expectation that when we need it, the coverage is available. At a time when we must reduce government spending, we must be vigilant to ensure that we continue investing in the health and safety of our citizens.

We must continue to work together, practice together, and plan together so that we can respond and act together. Americans deserve and should accept no less than an integrated system prepared to meet and respond to any threat to the public’s health and safety.

John Felton of Billings is president and CEO of RiverStone Health, the city-county health department.

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