During their Aug. 2 opening address at the third annual National Response Team Worker Safety and Health and Technical Conference, OSHA Administrator Edwin Foulke Jr. and Deborah Dietrich, director of EPA's Office of Emergency Management, acknowledged that while the two agencies are making headway in their emergency response efforts, there's still room for improvement in the area of communication.
The need for improved communication is one of the lessons learned by both OSHA and the EPA in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina, according to Dietrich.
“[After Katrina], many agencies were out there sampling,” she said. “There's a lot of information lying around and people will look to EPA and OSHA to know what is safe, how workers are affected, and it is our responsibility to figure out that data and to get the word out as quickly and as broadly as possible.”
Foulke emphasized that it is important to have the lines of communication open between response personnel and agencies during and immediately after a disaster. He alluded to the tragic I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis, Minn., which killed 15 people, and noted how jammed cellular phone lines made it difficult to get in touch with response personnel who were onsite. He said it was essential for responders to have the right means of communication in order to get in touch with agencies that can help them to stay safe.
“Communication is key in any type of emergency,” said Foulke.
In addition to having an improved method of communication, Foulke also said that it was important for all government agencies to work together so they can be better prepared in the event of a disaster, whether it's man-made or natural in scope, and as a result, offer a better response. “One thing I have learned since I have taken this job is that we can't do it ourselves,” he said.
Just as importantly, disaster preparedness is a crucial component in the agencies'emergency response strategy, not only because it's important for OSHA and EPA to be on top of things in case they run into unpredictable scenarios — such as unknown contaminants — but also to ensure that they aren't placing added stress onto emergency response workers, Dietrich said.
“Before anything happens, we need to make sure they have the right equipment, we need to make sure that our response personnel are given every benefit possible to be in shape, to know what is expected of them and to be physically fit in the demands that are put on them,” she said.