When the anthrax crisis struck, Delaware was ready to deal with the emergency. Its response had been in preparation for almost 20 years and, while the nature and extent of the situation went far beyond what anyone could have been anticipated, all indications are that the arrangement worked the way it was intended.

Hazmat coordinator Joseph Leonetti said that in the days immediately following receipt of a contaminated letter in the office of U.S. Senator Thomas Daschle in Washington, which touched off the national scare,  his decontamination team responded to some 100 alarms in New Castle County. The calls ranged upward to servicing 17 employees of the Jo-Ann Fabrics shop in Tri-State Mall and removing suspected rubbish from the home of a Newark woman who had been hospitalized.

No anthrax nor anthrax-related material has been found in Delaware.

Nevertheless, Gerald Llewellyn, chief of the toxicology branch of the state Division of Public Health, said all 'credible threats' are being fully evaluated and samples of possible offending material analyzed.

Although it was decided after a string of 18-hour duty days to designate the mobile decontamination unit a second line of defense backing up initial police and Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control response, there has been no lessening of the state of alert, Leonetti said.

"We have to treat everything as real," he said, adding that the unit can be manned and rolling from its base at the Elsmere Fire Company station in 20 minutes or less.

The hazmat decontamination unit is a large trailer, valued at about $100,000, which is towed behind an emergency van. The self-contained facility has everything necessary for on-site decontamination, including protective equipment and a bank of showers. 'Hazmat' is the abbreviated form of 'hazardous material'.

Elsmere and more recently the neighboring Cranston Heights company took on a decontamination specialty about 15 years ago in order to be prepared to deal with chemical incidents in the CSX Railroad yard. "We realized that no one was sure what to do so we needed a decontamination team within the company," he explained. Leonetti was Elsmere fire chief at the time.

There are now about 100 fully trained volunteer firefighters from

Joseph Leonetti explains the features of the mobile decontamination unit

several companies available for duty and the mobile unit can be sent anywhere, including out of state, under the mutual-aid arrangement among companies.

At about the same time Elsmere was adopting its specialty, Congress in 1986 enacted national 'superfund' legislation which provided for local emergency planning committees charged with developing plans to protect communities from chemical hazards. Delaware has such committees in each county and in the city of Wilmington.

State Representative David Ennis, who chairs the New Castle County committee, said that the panel's emphasis on preparedness long predates the September 11 terrorist attacks and what now appears to be biological terrorism. "An awful lot of effort has gone into preparing us to deal with chemical hazards and, as a result, I think we can say we're ready to deal with bioterrorism," he said.

Leonetti added that Delaware is the only state which has a fully coordinated statewide response capability. "Big cities have it, but right now there are a lot of places that can only wish they had what we have," he said. In part, of course, that has to do with the fact the state is small, but there are other factors.

For one, Delaware historically has been associated with the chemical industry and has readily available expertise to deal with emergencies. Ennis said his involvement with the emergency planning process began with participation in such an effort initiated by companies with facilities in the Edgemoor-Claymont area.

"The thing I can't emphasize too much is that a lot of this is being accomplished by volunteers," he said.

He and Leonetti said there is a fine line between caution and overreaction. "What people see on T.V. is going to affect them. We can only hope they will use common sense in deciding what should be reported," Leonetti said.

A problem that has begun to be felt is the difficulty in obtaining replacement material, he added. By nature, decontamination is a one-time process. Protective suits, for instance, have to be replaced after a single use. "We're finding it harder and harder to get supplies -- the federal government is buying them up," he said.

Ennis said that is largely counterproductive. "The local effort is our first line of defense," he said.

Posted on October 31, 2001

2001. All rights reserved.

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Read anthrax preparedness and response information
Read anthrax information from the Center for Disease Control

Go to the state Division of Public Health Web site for information about anthrax
 

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