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Utah Valley prepared — for disaster

Coordinator patches holes in emergency plans

PROVO — Utah Valley may not be on a terrorist target list — but that doesn't mean residents should shrug off preparing for a life-threatening disaster.

So says Karen Stuart, who oversees the spending of about $400,000 a year to prepare Utah County for disaster. And while Stuart, who advocates anticipating the worst-case scenario, isn't pushing the panic button, she wants people to remain alert and educated.

"I still think the threat (of a terrorist attack) is there," Stuart said, who's been the county's emergency response coordinator for two years. "I really think we're letting our guard down because things still could happen. We can't afford to do that."

Being as prepared as possible has a double benefit, she said.

Not only is one ready and equipped for an emergency, but terrorists can't stir up as much fear, which in turn can lead to sheer panic and rash, costly decisions.

"That's really what terrorism is about, " Stuart said, "It's all about fear. Terror is fear. So we're combating the emotion itself when we fight with preparation."

To that end, Stuart organizes drills and exercises, including mass vaccination clinics and mock disasters. She meets regularly with government and health department officials to talk about strategies for such events as earthquakes, hazardous spills or prolonged power outages.

Her job is to find holes in emergency plans. Then, she helps patch those holes.

Stuart and her team — including an epidemiologist, a part-time information officer and an office clerk — work with police, governmental agencies, churches, hospitals and Utah Valley physicians to coordinate disaster protocol.

There's a system already in place that alerts doctors and medical personnel in Utah of any kind of threat. If a person in rural Utah is diagnosed with a communicable disease, everyone else will be aware of it within a day, she said.

"We're lucky in Utah because we had kind of a head start with the planning" for the 2002 Winter Olympic Games, Stuart said. Grant money also has paid for a lot of pagers, radios and upgraded phone systems.

The federal Homeland Security grants come to the Utah County Health Department through the state health department, allocated to the individual counties based on size, population and need.

This year's grant is for $449,630.06 and can be used as needed for everything from purchasing gas masks or installing firewall software on computers.

"I think we're getting ready. I feel comfortable. I sleep well at night," Stuart said. "Of course you can't anticipate everything. Who would have imagined someone flying planes into the World Trade Center building?"

The trick is to "never say never," said Stuart.

"Once you do that, you just set yourself up. The federal government has identified 25 target cities, and we're not one of them. That's good but it puts us at risk if we become complacent."