By Tom Still

WASHINGTON – A strain of avian influenza is detected on a poultry farm in Texas. Soon, there are reports of the same flu strain on farms in Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. How can health officials be mobilized to stop the flu from making the leap from birds to humans?

That process may well begin at the “All-Emergency Room,” the high-tech command center built by Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson to keep tabs on the range of natural and man-made threats to the health and safety of Americans.

The DHSS command center, which opened in late 2002 at an under-budget cost of $3.5 million, is where the federal government manages its emergencies – from avian flu to SARS, monkey pox and West Nile virus, to chemical spills, biological releases, tornadoes, hurricanes and just about anything else that may threaten human health.

In a nation still haunted by the memory of terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and more likely to react (or overreact) to threats to its food, water and air supplies, the DHSS command center is a welcome security blanket. It is a marriage of technology and intergovernmental cooperation, designed to keep federal, state and local officials communicating in the event of a national emergency – or even a localized problem.

On the day I visited the command center in Washington, the outbreaks of avian flu were being tracked on one of ten screens on a 24-foot-long video wall. Those screens can display virtual briefings, video conferences and 3-D maps of public health situations, as well as biological, chemical and radiological attacks around the world. Up to a dozen agencies can communicate at once via the wall, with details projected state by state, county by county, city by city and even block by block.

The screens can also run simulations to see how weather patterns can affect chemical, biological and radiation attacks, predicting the number of potential victims and helping to direct the emergency response. Having that information can help to position pharmaceutical stocks and medical equipment – and move them quickly and efficiently.

Among the 26 work stations are spots reserved for Thompson, the former Wisconsin governor who has made emergency preparedness a DHSS priority, and key members of his administration. Communications can be simultaneous with the Centers for Disease Control, the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, the FBI, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and even the CIA, allowing all agencies to share vital information in real time.

A meteorologist is on call around the clock to track weather, which has the most affect on public health. The call center can monitor 114 emergency response teams nationwide and more than 200 public health programs around the world. Each work station has its own computer and Web-enabled touchscreen phone with wireless remote for the video displays. More than 200 phone numbers have been assigned to the command center – most of them rerouted numbers that are local calls in locations across the United States.

Because news organizations are likely to be the first to report a disaster or even a public health emergency, the center has access to 31 communications satellites and about 4,000 federal and commercial television channels worldwide. Plasma screens in the command center might at any moment display reports on CNN, Al-Jazeera or the BBC.

Not everything monitored by the command center is a national emergency, however. During my visit, the staff was trying to find ways to move more specialized beds and resources to Guam, where there had been a sudden and unexplained rise in premature births.

The room is designed to keep operating if Washington comes under attack. There is a 400-kilowatt generator and off-site data backup systems protecting the center’s work, as well as a separate air handling system. Even if a biological agent was put in the air system of the DHHS building, the people in the command center could continue working.

Other federal agencies, in particular the Pentagon, are now building upon the DHHS model. There may be multiple threats to the health and safety of Americans in our post-9/11 world, but there’s some comfort in knowing that an emergency network is in place.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council and is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.