U expert calls for state radiation disaster center

by Tom Ford

Fifteen years after responding as chief medical officer to the Chernobyl disaster, Victor Koscheyev wants to teach what he learned from the experience; he says it’s imperative.

He said he witnessed the confusion of thousands of workers coming together without much coordination, the extreme and immediate radiation contamination of responders and how the government was not prepared to handle the catastrophe.

Koscheyev, a senior fellow in the University’s School of Kinesiology and Leisure Studies, said he believes those problems exist now in U.S. disaster response, including response to possible terrorist attacks.

“We need to have an intellectual epicenter (that could) develop different types of special guides for disaster management to teach people how to manage disasters,” he said.

For nearly six years, Koscheyev spearheaded an effort to create a University center to research ways to protect responders in extreme conditions, better organize the governmental response system and monitor the physical and mental health of victims long after a disaster. He was head of a similar center in Moscow in the late 1980s.

His effort at the University was formalized in three separate proposals submitted to the graduate program – the last was submitted in 1999. All three attempts were turned down, said University psychology professor Gloria Leon.

“Despite our efforts (the center) obviously was not a high priority,” Leon said.

Leon, who worked with Koscheyev throughout the effort, said a University-established center would make it easier to garner state and federal dollars.

“The bottom line was we needed to have some viable entity within the University,” Leon said. “The state couldn’t just give the two of us money.”

She said after the last proposal – which asked for $100,000 over two years – was turned down, they “truly gave up in discouragement.”

Esam El-Fakahany, associate graduate school dean, would not comment specifically about the proposal but said the review process is competitive.

He said Koscheyev’s proposal was among 24 applications that year, and only 11 given between $10,000 to $50,000 each.

Paul Aasen, former director of the state’s Department of Public Safety emergency management division, offered a letter of support for the 1999 proposal. He said at the time he was “very interested” in a center to help prepare for disaster management.

But he said the state’s response agencies today have resources that weren’t available in 1999, and he is not sure how necessary a center would be now.

“(Minnesota) has come light years ahead with its rapid health-alert network,” Aasen said.

Despite any improvements, Leon said, the state is uniquely hindered by its cold climate. She said extremely cold weather “could cause casualties” as victims contaminated by chemicals or radiation have to be immediately decontaminated.

For example, Leon said she was involved with a March 1997 exercise at the St. Paul Federal Building, which simulated a radiation disaster and involved Twin Cities response teams. In the exercise, three simulated victims went to the hospital to be treated for hypothermia.

If the exercise were real, the contaminated victims would have had to be showered and decontaminated outside. But Leon said in this case the simulated victims were merely lying on the pavement, waiting for an ambulance to pick them up.

Koscheyev said a center could deal with many cold-weather problems; for instance, it could develop equipment for responders to protect victims from sharp winds.

A prime focus of the center, he said, would be to design comfortable protective suits for first responders that would prevent workers from overheating. Koscheyev, who has received NASA funds to research equipment for astronauts, said the center would be equipped with chambers that could test suit designs by simulating a range of temperatures and conditions.

Another critical aspect a center could address, he said, is care beyond immediate needs for disaster victims and rescue workers.

For instance, the Chernobyl response involved about 600,000 military workers who were exposed to varying radiation levels, he said.

Koscheyev said the radiation could affect those workers for 25 years, and they have to be monitored throughout that time.

He said current U.S. response systems don’t provide long-term care. Victims, he said, would be sent to hospitals and cared for by doctors who are not specially trained to deal with them.