Report finds Indiana average in crisis readiness

By By MICHAEL BOREN

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Deadly disease outbreaks, vaccination shortages and massive tornadoes are all scary thoughts. The question is: Is Indiana prepared for them?

Yes — but only to a point.

The state scores a 5 out of 10 on a preparedness scale for disasters ranging from bio-terrorist attacks to extreme weather, according to an annual report by the nonprofit group Trust for America's Health.

Indiana succeeded in several categories of the report, including maintaining financing for public health programs and ensuring quick response times. But it fell short in other categories, such as vaccinating children for whooping cough and adapting to climate change.

So what does it all mean?

"The biggest takeaway is that we find ourselves in the middle," Peter Beering, an Indianapolis terrorism consultant and former director of the Marion County Emergency Management Agency, told The Indianapolis Star (http://indy.st/UTomHG ). "Better than some on the really important things. But just like most of life, there are always things that we can do better."

The biggest area for improvement is likely in vaccinations, Beering said. Indiana, like most other states, failed to meet the goal of vaccinating 90 percent of kids between the ages of 19 and 35 months old for whooping cough in 2011. The goal was set by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The vaccination rate for that age group and whooping cough in Indiana is 82.2 percent, said Amy Reel, a spokeswoman for the Indiana State Department of Health.

"The State Health Department is working to increase awareness of this vaccine and others," Reel said in an email, describing efforts to alert parents through letters when their kids are due for an immunization.

Indiana, according to the preparedness report, also lacks the staff needed to work five 12-hour-days for up to eight weeks in state public health laboratories if an infectious disease outbreak occurs, such as H1N1. More than half of other states can meet this demand.

Lacking enough emergency responders has become a controversial topic in some Indiana communities. The city of Lawrence, for example, laid off more than 20 emergency medical technicians in October to make up for a $2 million budget shortfall. Kokomo also made cuts to its safety departments several years ago.

The cuts reflect perhaps the biggest concern in the preparedness report: States and cities are slashing emergency resources to cover budget problems.

"Unfortunately public safety is one of the things that's on the chopping block occasionally," said Randy Seals, president of the Indiana Emergency Medical Services Association.

The cuts mean fewer responders and possibly slower response times, Seals said, especially in a large-scale disaster in which authorities are seeking help from surrounding communities. Fewer people available means departments would have to keep asking for more and more help, Seals said.

"Eventually you're going overload the system," he said.

Another area Indiana falls short on is extreme weather preparedness, mainly because the state lacks a full climate change adaptation plan, the report said. Most states failed in this category.

"To the best of my knowledge, no Indiana agency has a plan that specifically addresses the effects of climate change," said Robert Elstro, spokesman for the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, in an email. "However, flooding and droughts are two climate change issues likely to affect Indiana."

Drought and record-breaking heat were already big problems last summer in Indiana.

As for droughts, Elstro said the state has a water shortage plan that's implemented by the Indiana Department of Homeland Security and several other agencies. It establishes guidelines for providing access to water in case supplies dry up or customer demand exceeds a system's limits. The homeland security department also coordinates with federal or local agencies during flooding.

Hoosiers shouldn't lose much sleep over the findings, Beering said. After all, Indiana did pass several categories, such as maintaining its ability to test for chemical threats and requiring Medicaid to cover flu shots for certain people below the age of 65.

Ultimately, emergency experts say, disaster preparedness is a very complicated task, because states must prepare for catastrophes before they happen.

"Emergency preparedness tends to be episodic," Beering said. "People typically react to the last catastrophe rather than thinking about the next one."

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Information from: The Indianapolis Star, http://www.indystar.com

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