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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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NMSU Leads Statewide Internet-based Town Hall on Security

LAS CRUCES - More than 400 of New Mexico's community leaders had an opportunity to ask emergency preparedness questions in a virtual town hall meeting with state and regional experts today.

Organized and led by New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service, the program simultaneously reached all of the state's 33 counties using an Internet-based Crisis Response Communications Network. Originally developed for Extension's distance education learning efforts, the network was initiated last spring before the tragic events of Sept. 11.

"We made history today," said Billy Dictson, Extension director and associate dean with NMSU's College of Agriculture and Home Economics. "I'm aware that many state and federal agencies have been doing emergency preparedness for many years. Today's forum wasn't designed to take away from those preparations, rather it was to communicate within the state at the local level."

To help New Mexico residents better cope with the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, the Extension Service brought together a panel of state and federal experts representing six critical
agencies: the New Mexico Department of Health, U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and
Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), New Mexico Livestock Board, New Mexico Environment Department, New Mexico Department of Public Safety and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The danger to agricultural crops from terrorism is relatively low, Kerry Bryan, New Mexico's APHIS director, told those gathered at more than 70 widely dispersed locations. "It's pretty hard to do a mass infection with crops - animals would be much easier," he said.

Roadside feedlots and dairies represent a simple way to introduce a highly contagious disease such as a virus to livestock. "We realize in keeping our freedoms here that it's hard to secure all areas of agriculture," said APHIS veterinarian Michael Greenlee. "The thing we can do is hopefully respond quickly." Thurman Reitz, assistant state veterinarian with the New Mexico Livestock Board added that the state has had several interdiction programs in place for years.

"Surveillance of infectious diseases in animals coming into the country is probably much more controlled than it is with human beings," said Stuart Castle, manager of the Department of Health's Public Health Emergency Health Preparedness Unit. A person with an infectious disease will usually not be detected until that individual becomes ill and reports to a medical facility where someone may alert the health department, he said.

Another preparedness issue addressed by the panel included security of open water supplies like reservoirs. "They're difficult to secure and lock up, but the bright spot is that these are large bodies of water and it would take a large amount of material to contaminate it," said Stephen Wust, a leader in New Mexico Environment Department's Drinking Water Bureau. It's also likely that the water would be cleaned and treated before it was released to the public, he said.

Meanwhile, in terms of damaged or destroyed communication capabilities, Michael
Brown, weapons of mass destruction program manager with New Mexico's Department of Public Safety, said his department has full backup abilities at the state Office of Emergency Management. Finally, the panel was questioned on irradiation of agricultural products as a possible security precaution. Irradiation already has been approved for a variety of products, including produce, meat and poultry, said Virlie Walker, a Denver-based pubic affairs specialist with the FDA.

"We've done a number of things to make sure our clientele have access to networks and information that they may find useful in their planning," added Extension Department Head Wendy Hamilton. NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service's goal is to lay the ground work for getting a dialogue started with the right people during these stressful times, she said. Extension has created technology outreach programs, developed of emergency contracts, extension learning events, web site information and development of media releases.

Extension staff are also posting regular notices about safety and emergency preparedness information on a World Wide Web site supporting the Crisis Response Network at http://cahe.nmsu.edu/terrorism/welcome.html. Dictson pointed out that if the crisis involves preparedness, security, procedural steps, regulations, contact information, official protocols or tips for local citizens here in New Mexico, then Extension has the resources to help respond quickly. Monday's town hall program is archived online for later viewing.

"We are making our Internet platform available to other agencies across New Mexico to help keep people informed and train key personnel in emergency preparedness," he said.