Is your utility prepared for smallpox?

Homer C. Emery, Ph.D., San Antonio Water System

Power, water, gas and other utility service providers can take great pride in being prepared for emergencies ranging from winter storms and spring floods to hurricanes and tornadoes. However, a smallpox outbreak is one emergency for which utilities may not be prepared.

During “Operation Pale Horse” at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, local utilities had the opportunity to examine how a smallpox outbreak might limit their ability to provide essential services. Operation Pale Horse was a national level exercise that allowed more than 400 participants from local, state and federal agencies to test and evaluate their plans for managing a bioterrorism emergency.

Imagine what would happen if you had to face a disaster in which more than half of your critical system operators did not report to work and mutual aid partners were stopped at the county line. Members of the Bexar County Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) representing local power, food, water and other community service providers had to face this very question as participants in the Operation Pale Horse exercise.

As public health officials and the medical community had to deal with a catastrophic medical emergency, local power and water utilities had to face operating and maintaining critical infrastructure systems with up to 70 percent of the work force absent. The LEPC participants also agreed that utilities must plan for a smallpox emergency and provide awareness training to their employees.

Current national plans do not call for utility workers and other community service providers to be vaccinated. However, if the threat of smallpox increases, utility workers might be included in local pre-vaccination plans. The best thing to do about decisions related to smallpox vaccination is to maintain a working partnership with your local public health agency.

Utilities need to review existing emergency plans to ensure that the following contingencies are addressed:

“- Employees who cannot get to work due to quarantine measures.
“- Employees not able to return home due to quarantine measures.
“- Employees who can but won’t come to work due to fear.
“- Health monitoring for employees on duty.

Even though the smallpox bioterrorism threat is considered to be low, utilities must prepare employees for continued operations during a prolonged outbreak. If you expect to be “doing business as usual” apply the lessons learned from Operation Pale Horse. Take the time now to prepare your employees.

A smallpox power point briefing for utility workers has been developed by the Bexar County LEPC in conjunction with local health officials. This power point presentation is available on the internet at:

A longer version of this article was presented during the Texas Municipal Utility Association 2003 Conference.


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