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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

Homeland Security

Aired May 20, 2003 - 09:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: In Washington, Tom Ridge is now testifying before that House committee. Want to take a quick listen right now as to what is being said now in these opening remarks.
TOM RIDGE, SECRETARY OF HOMELAND SECURITY: ... end of the beginning.

In many ways we are still just at the beginning of a new chapter in American history, a chapter of renewed commitment and capabilities in the fight to safeguard the liberties, ideals and precious lives that we hold sacred. I assure you it is a chapter together we as a nation will write.

Mr. Chairman and members of the subcommittee, I thank you for your commitment and for helping us build the capabilities to achieve our mission, and I thank you for the privilege of appearing before you here today. I'd be happy to respond to any questions you might have at this time.

REP. CHRISTOPHER COX (R-CA), CHAIRMAN: Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary, for your concision and your brevity as well as the extensive written testimony that you've provided.

I'd like to begin with some questions about TOPOFF 2. This was a very significant exercise, the largest, as you say, simulated terrorist exercise in our nation's history. The $16 million cost is either a lot or a little, depending upon what we got out of this and the lessons learned, and I think we'll have an opportunity today to bear down on that question.

Now, the purpose of an emergency drill is to learn where one's weaknesses are so that we can address those areas. One of the things we need to know as a result of our investigation of TOPOFF 2 is whether more of such exercises will be necessary, as well as whether we can immediately take lessons learned and put solutions into place through regulation or through legislation.

It appears that there were capacity problems in Chicago's hospitals during the exercise. It also appears that we had difficulty distributing antibiotics as fast as we would like, in particular because one of the workarounds that we've tried to develop using volunteers supervised by nurses was ruled out because of potential legal liability for the volunteers and/or their supervisors.

The executive director of the DuPage County Health Department, Leland Lewis, reportedly approached you and said, "Here's what we'd like to do. Here's how we can get antibiotics to these people who are going to die otherwise." And we hit this roadblock, and I wonder if you could describe to us where does that roadblock exist. Is this a federal problem, a state problem, both? Can you address it in regulations? Does Congress need to address this legislatively, Mr. Secretary?

RIDGE: Mr. Chairman, first of all, as you indicated, we did spend $16 million on this exercise, and I need not remind my colleagues in public service that the Department of Defense spends hundreds of millions of dollars each and every year to train and practice and exercise. And so I think, in balance, as we look toward training and practice and exercising our first responders and developing the communication partnership among the federal, state and local authorities that respond, it's a good investment.

The capacity problem that you alluded to with regard to hospitals and with regard to professionals' availability is something that we talked about publicly right after the exercise. We weren't quite at the saturation point, but again, as part of the exercise, we concluded that we needed to determine what we would do if we did get to the saturation point.

And at that point in time in the exercise we know that the Department of Defense has portable hospitals, so we made a very appropriate request to DOD. We know the public health system has emergency teams, and we alerted an emergency team, and theoretically they were on their way with 125 additional nurses and 25 additional doctors.

So again, as part of the exercise, while there was still bed capacity in Chicago and there was still not a human resource problem, there does get a time when you're treating such an intense event that the personnel in these hospitals would need to be relieved and there might be a strain on the physical facilities. So we just plugged that into the system to see how we would resolve that problem.

It's interesting, the public health official from DuPage County in Chicago, said, "Look, I'm in the law, I need to use public health nurses to distribute these medicines," and he mentioned to the governor that it would be a lot easier if a public health nurse would supervise in the distribution of medicines with three or four different volunteers. And he had concluded that the only thing the governor needed to do -- that it was a state-related matter that the governor by executive order could deal with the whole question of liability.

I think it just offers us an opportunity to look at all the state laws, the whole question of liability of public health supervision on the distribution team so we could facilitate the distribution of those pharmaceuticals. It raised a very appropriate question. One of the reasons we have the exercise is how can we improve the delivery of services? That's a fairly practical suggestion; we will have to determine what the legal implications are.

COX: Last week was a bad week if one were to take the simulated terrorist exercises as real for our country... HEMMER: Just wanted to give you a sampling of what's happening now, or to the opening statement of the question-and-answer session that will follow in that House committee down on Capitol Hill.

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