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Training increases ability to respond to ag disasters
BRANDON – First responders and others with an interest in agriculture are recognizing its vulnerability to disasters by taking part in statewide awareness training.
The National Center for Biomedical Research and Training is overseeing a three-year pilot program in Mississippi, Louisiana and New Mexico. The Extension Service in each state will train 900 people per state annually to respond to intentional, accidental and naturally occurring disasters. Mississippi State University’s Extension Service held its first training recently in Brandon.
“We want to help communities identify and prepare for incidents affecting animal, plant and food systems,” said Jeff Witte, a program trainer and the director and secretary of the New Mexico Department of Agriculture.
Those with a role in agriculture security include emergency management agencies, Extension personnel, educators, industry representatives, law enforcement and public health workers.
“It is important that we plan together, train together and respond together,” Witte said.
During the day-long course, Witte and co-trainer Billy Dictson reviewed potential disasters that could impact plants, animals and food. Dictson, who is the author of the New Mexico Department of Agriculture’s Emergency Response and Preparedness Plan, reminded the class that all disasters start locally and end locally.
“It is important for local agencies to have a plan. During a disaster, FEMA addresses human needs first and livestock last,” Dictson said. “Animals in the path of disasters include livestock, pets and wildlife.”
Animal-related considerations include transportation, isolation, quarantine and disposal, as well as the basics of handling, housing, feeding and watering. After Hurricane Katrina, the Stafford Act, which provides for federal response during a disaster, was amended to address concerns for pets.
“The Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act directs state and local emergency plans for household pets and service animals after a major disaster,” Dictson said. “Those local responders must be prepared to rescue, care for and shelter pets and service animals, as well as provide for their essential needs.”
An outbreak of food poisoning can have deadly effects on people and economically devastating effects on the products involved. For example, consumer demand for spinach is still depressed six years after a deadly E. coli outbreak was linked to it.
“The challenge is not just from commercial establishments. Many home kitchens in America could not pass the state health requirements,” Dictson said. “Adults are too far removed from basic home economics lessons that schools once offered.”
Queen Swayze, an environmental health program specialist with the Mississippi Department of Health, took part in the training and said the overviews were helpful.
“It was good to make contacts with other agencies and realize who could be involved in responding to a disaster. It never occurred to me that Extension agents are available in every county to help when food or water incidents occur,” she said.
“Communities need to know what crops are in their area and recognize (crop) seasons,” Witte said.
With 42,000 farms, Mississippi has a variety of crops growing year round. One tool he suggested for locating fields is the CropScape website, located at http://nassgeodata.gmu.edu/cropscape/.
“As with all disasters, plant disaster can be accidental, intentional or naturally occurring,” Witte said. “Accidental incidents could involve the transportation of pests. Intentional incidents could come from disgruntled employees or someone with a political agenda. Naturally occurring disasters could be insects or soil- or wind-borne spores.”
Tom Ball of MSU’s Center for Governmental Training and Technology is one of the organizers of the statewide training.
“Quite often, the most beneficial part of disaster awareness training is bringing responders together so they know each other before an emergency occurs,” Ball said. “The more we know about specific roles and responsibilities of the people and agencies involved, the better we can respond.”