New Jersey is no stranger to catastrophes, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s calculations. Hurricanes, storms, floods, blizzards, fires, virus threats, power outages and even terrorist attack emergency declarations are recorded in the state’s recent disaster history. In every crisis, there is always the big question: “Who’s in charge?” Now, a virtual Jersey town is helping to train public health leaders who won’t have to ask and will be able to step right up.
Start with the knowledge that natural and man-made disasters loom larger than ever. This is a post 9-11 world, where public health experiences include hurricanes like mammoth Katrina, Fort Dix terrorists’ plots and the fear of things like anthrax and bird flu. Add the fact that the leadership abilities of public health officers are being challenged as never before because their workforce is aging and shrinking while budgets remain static. “Like a good roller coaster, an effective simulation exercise gives you the thrill of the real thing with the comfort of knowing that in the end, you’ll land safe and sound. PHLIER is designed to achieve the same effect,” according to Drew Harris, DPM, MPH, assistant director, NJ Center for Public Health Preparedness (at right).
PHLIER, The Public Health Leadership Initiative for Emergency Response, puts future leaders into a free, case-based series of seminars during which participants deal with true-to-life scenarios in a virtual town called PHLIERton, complete with its own profile and detailed map featuring an airport, train station, water treatment plant, chemical facility, its own census data, newspaper, and a multi-dimensional population—an unlucky community forced to confront floods, chemical spills, bioterrorist attacks, pandemics and a Lhasa fever outbreak. Says Harris, “Our goal was to create a community that looked like New Jersey, but was a safe place for our fellows to learn and challenge themselves,
a place where they could leave the political and parochial constraints that so often dictate how public health is delivered in our state. Ultimately, we will make the virtual PHLIERton available for others to use.”