“It takes a community of resilience to build a nation of resilience,” said Winfred Rawls, Deputy Director and Emergency Officer at the Illinois Department of Public Health. He stood on stage looking out at over 200 community members at the American Red Cross Disaster Preparedness Summit. Thought leaders from across the Midwest had gathered to build community strength in the face of bioterrorism.
Attendees gather to learn about Private Sector Response to a Bioterrorism Event.
The 8th Annual Disaster Preparedness Summit focused on the Bioterrorism and the Impact of Public Health in Community Recovery and Resiliency. The Summit taught community members about the need to prepare for the threat of bioterrorism and the ways public and private sectors are doing so. Speakers and attendees were encouraged to share their experiences and ideas to further improve our preparedness plans.
The University of Chicago Medicine’s Brenda Battle welcomed all attendees to the conference held on DePaul University’s campus in Lincoln Park. “We must look to the future so we can be prepared,” she expressed with determination.
One group of panelists discussed bioterrorism preparedness and response planning in Illinois. Dr. Kate Ballering of Hasset Willis & Company (HWC) defined bioterrorism as “the intentional release of pathogens to cause illness or death in people, animals or plants.” Ballering reported on humanity’s long history of using biological disease as a weapon, and the very real possibility of a bioterrorism event in our future. Other panelists informed attendees about alert or prevention systems currently in place. Emma Ratajczak, BioWatch’s Jurisdictional Coordinator, explained that the BioWatch system monitors and tests the air surrounding major American cities, including Chicago, for intentionally released harmful pathogens. This federal system can provide an early warning for a bioterrorism attack.
Panelists on stage discuss response planning in Illinois.
A second group of panelists examined the private sector response to a bioterrorism event, and agreed on the importance of private businesses having community partnerships. Christopher Shields of the Chicago Department of Public Health also stressed the need for collaboration within our community by declaring that, “Diseases do not know boundaries. Diseases move so our jurisdictions are all in the game together.”
During a specialized breakout session, speakers outlined the effectiveness of Illinois’ response to the Ebola outbreak, and the different ways to treat a Highly Contagious Infectious Disease. At a second breakout session, Anthony Williams, mental health therapist and chaplain of the Illinois Army National Guard, explored the psychological impact of disaster. Williams pointed out that the survivors of terrorism event can have lasting psychological and emotional scars that may remain long after infrastructure has been rebuilt. Williams asserted that mental health treatment cannot be overlooked in times of disaster because a community is only as strong as the people within it.
Anthony Williams during Psychological Impact of Bioterrorism Breakout Session.
FBI Supervisory Special Agent Jeremy W. Francis closed the conference by honoring the first responders lost in the 9/11 terrorist attack. “That day nothing else mattered. Not even their own safety mattered more than saving a life,” Francis reflected on this selfless reaction. He encouraged our community to take action and be more prepared now than we were then. Francis emphasized that through positive organizational culture paired with increased awareness and training, we can improve our preparedness and mitigate impact or loss from any future terrorist attacks.
As attendees began to file out, Lisa Mallory-Nance from the Cook County Department of Public Health lingered in the hall to continue conversation about the next steps we can take together. She voiced her takeaway from the Disaster Summit, “Today we fostered a sense of urgency. An urgency to prepare for the possibility of a bioterrorism event that is not as far-fetched as we may once have believed. Just because it has not happened yet, does not mean the work and systems that have been developed are not useful. We have built and must continue building these relevant systems.”
Speakers receive applause from guests.
Thank you to all of the attendees, speakers and sponsors for coming together to continue strengthening our community at this year’s Disaster Summit.
Written By: Lucia Varlotta, American Red Cross Communications Intern