Frederick group seeks improved emergency contact with Fort Detrick -- Gazette.Net


Frederick officials will continue to look into a possible nonbinding agreement aimed at improving communication between the city and Fort Detrick in the case of an incident that requires an emergency response, although post officials view it as unneeded.

The Containment Laboratory Community Advisory Committee — a community group that seeks to foster communication between the public and U.S. Army officials at Fort Detrick — has asked Mayor Randy McClement (R) and the Frederick Board of Alderman to draft a memorandum of understanding to help local elected officials get more timely information about incidents at the post that might have an impact or cause concern about the public’s health.

The board discussed the issue at their Nov. 28 meeting at City Hall in Frederick.

In a letter to the mayor and aldermen, the committee said it has become concerned about “receiving timely health and safety information from the garrison and laboratories at Fort Detrick.”

Detrick is home to top secret laboratories where researchers work with some of the world’s deadliest diseases and pathogens. Tests also have found that groundwater near the post contains extremely high levels of cancer-causing agents, with tests of wells in the area still being conducted.

Under language proposed by the committee, the memorandum would specify a time frame by which Detrick officials would notify city officials in emergency situations, as well as require nonemergency communications between the city and the post to be answered within 48 hours.

“We believe there should be clear agreement about what circumstances will trigger notification, who is notified and how quickly,” the letter said. “We further recommend that there should be clear agreement about who in the chain of command city officials will be able [to] contact to obtain timely answers to questions.”

Beth Willis, chairwoman of the 11-member committee, said it’s important to have something in writing because elected officials and base commanders change fairly often, and the public isn’t served by officials having to “reinvent the wheel” on how notifications will take place each time there’s a change in leadership.

The agreement should articulate a clear, sensible communication plan in which everyone can have confidence, Willis said.

Eileen Mitchell, the civilian deputy commander of the garrison at Fort Detrick, acknowledged that the base may not have done a very good job of communicating with the city and county in the past when there was an incident, but the Army requires that they notify the community.

Currently, the base commander typically calls the mayor and president of the Frederick County Board of Commissioners, while other base officials call the heads of the county’s health services and emergency management divisions, Mitchell said.

“I don’t think that an M.O.U. from our standpoint makes sense,” Mitchell said, pointing out that any agreement wouldn’t be binding.

But she said officials at the base certainly are willing to discuss the issue with the city further.

Aldermen Kelly Russell (D) and Shelly Aloi (R) said they’d like to see what policies Detrick already has in place before moving further on the issue.

Russell said federal officials already have a management system in place for incidents at facilities such as Detrick, and elected officials would play a very small role in handling any response.

“Having information as elected officials, I think, is a good thing,” she said. “We just have to be sure that the information we’re asking to get and that we’re hoping to get, we need to distinguish that from how an emergency response would unfold, and what information we might get and when, and how it’s disseminated, because that needs to be controlled in that system.”

Alderman Michael O’Connor (D) said anything that clarifies how information flows would be helpful.

“Anything that makes clear what the relationship between entities is supposed to be, and what the expectations are as a part of that relationship, can’t be a bad thing,” he said.