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MIT Medical, Police Prepare for Disaster

By Christine R. Fry


As a result of the September 11 attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., MIT Medical and other public health and safety offices on campus have taken steps to prepare for a terrorist attack on campus or in the surrounding area.

MIT Medical has joined a consortium of Boston and Cambridge hospitals that would work together if a college or area of the city were subject to an act of terrorism, such as an anthrax outbreak.

Dr. Howard Heller, an internist at MIT Medical specializing in infectious diseases, said that MIT Medical wants to be able to deal with an attack on its own in case the consortium hospitals and the federal government are unable to respond quickly.

“We’re trying to be prepared to deal with any bioterror event ourselves,” Heller said. “We’d like to be as self-sufficient as we possibly can.”

The Office of Public Safety and the Emergency Response Team have also been busy preparing for the possibility of an attack.

Anne P. Glavin, Director of Public Safety, said that the response protocol is based on a triage system. An emergency situation would be assessed to determine what on-campus resources would be needed and if services outside of MIT would be needed.

This protocol has been put to use several times since September 11.

“There are so many scares that haven’t been valid. We’ve had about seventeen cases to date,” Glavin said.

Many disaster resources available

Heller calls the consortium a “pooling of resources.” In the case of an attack, the member hospitals would notify each other of the availability of beds in the hospital, personnel such as nurses or secretaries, and drug supply. Hospitals would also notify each other if there were an unusual number of people coming to the hospital with a certain disease, such as meningitis. Several cases of the same disease in different areas of the city would arouse suspicion and lead to investigation into the possibilities of a bioterrorist attack.

In addition to resources available from local hospitals, MIT Medical would have support from state and federal agencies such as the Massachusetts Health Department and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The National Pharmaceutical Stockpile is a CDC program that would make available a supply of any antibiotics or vaccines necessary for treatment of anthrax or smallpox. This supply could be mobilized within twelve hours.

If a patient entered MIT Medical with symptoms similar to those of inhalation anthrax, a doctor would most likely take blood cultures and chest x-rays to determine the identity of the disease. A severe case of inhalation anthrax would most likely be sent to a larger hospital, because the Medical Center does not have intensive care facilities necessary to properly treat such a case.

“The only thing we cannot do is have them on a ventilator,” Heller said.

In the event of a larger outbreak of anthrax at MIT, the Medical Center has enough antibiotics to begin treatment of several thousand people infected with anthrax.

MIT reviews disaster policies

As a move towards self-sufficiency, the medical department is reviewing disaster response policies.

“We’re in the process of fine-tuning a specific response to anthrax,” Heller said.

He also said that it takes a lot less at MIT for something to be considered a disaster.

“Our definition of a disaster is relatively mild compared to the outside world,” Heller noted. The MIT definition of a disaster is four casualties resulting from a single incident.

If a bioterrorist disaster occurred on campus, several groups would respond. The Campus Police would initiate the response and would be responsible for calling in outside groups such as the Cambridge Fire Department Hazardous Materials team. The Office of Public Safety, the Office of Environmental Health, and the Mental Health Department would also respond to such an event.

“The Mental Health Department [is] very key. The public panic and hysteria can make what is bad a thousand times worse,” Heller said.

Opinions on campus security vary

Glavin said that campus security has been changed.

“There have been areas where we have reevaluated [security],” she said. For safety reasons, these areas could not be disclosed.

“There is no actual threat to MIT,” Glavin added.

Senior Associate Dean for Students Robert M. Randolph said that a change in campus security and access is very hard to bring about at MIT.

“I don’t think a lot has changed. This is a very hard place to change. We have a long tradition of openness,” Randolph said.

He said that changes in the future will most likely occur in the form of restricted access to the classrooms and increased use of card readers. He added that changes should be “meaningful” and not “just for appearance.”

Students notice no change

Many students agree with Randolph’s belief that not much has changed in campus security. One change that students noticed was that security at Baker House has tightened.

“It’s a lot harder to get into dorms,” Christina V. McDonough ’02 said.

Many students aren’t worried about the possibility of terrorist attacks at MIT.

“I try not to worry about it too much, mostly because I can’t do anything about it,” Matthew R. Powell ’02 said.

“I don’t think any reasonable security measure we could take [would] prevent [an attack],” Audrey L. Snyder ’03 said.