For her, emergencies are all in a day's work

Howard Neighbors

  • Mary Lasky says emergency preparedness demands support from the entire community. On the wall is a painting of her native El Paso, Texas.
Mary Lasky says emergency preparedness demands support from… (Baltimore Sun photo by Algerina…)
December 13, 2009|By Janene Holzberg | Special to The Baltimore Sun

Mary Lasky was in a meeting Tuesday when she got word that swine flu shots would be offered to all Marylanders, taking advantage of a statewide stockpile of vaccine that keeps growing as demand has waned.

Two hours later, she was plugged into a conference call, helping to map out a strategy to disseminate some of that surplus to previously ineligible employees at all institutions within the Johns Hopkins University system.

Such is the inherently unpredictable and demanding life of an emergency preparedness planner, a profession that took on deeper meaning after Sept. 11, 2001, and continues to redefine itself as emergency officials grapple with the fickle behavior of the H1N1 virus.

And starting next month, the program manager for business continuity planning at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel will expand her focus to getting all of Howard County prepared to handle any disaster.

Lasky will officially take the reins of the county's Community Emergency Response Network from its founder and outgoing chairman, Richard Krieg, who is president and CEO of the Horizon Foundation, a Columbia-based health and wellness philanthropy.

A Montgomery County resident, she had previously served as vice chair of continuity of operations planning for CERN, which is a coalition of public- and private-sector representatives who work together to prepare the county for a flu pandemic, terrorist attack or major natural emergency.

Though Krieg may be stepping down, he's not stepping away. He will lead CERN's new Community Resource Team, a handpicked "think tank" which will be mobilized during an emergency - instead of ahead of one - for the first time in the organization's six-year history.

"CERN won't miss a beat [as it changes leadership], and I will be privileged to work with this new team side by side with our first responders," he said.

Krieg said the board of directors unanimously agreed to Lasky's selection, adding that he has worked closely with her over the past year to ensure a smooth transition.

"There are very few places where leaders of various institutions sit down to plan and train together the way we do at CERN," said Krieg, who left his post as Chicago's health commissioner in 1998 to take the helm of Horizon. The Ellicott City resident founded CERN in late 2003 in response to the events of Sept. 11.

"The collaborative model we have here in Howard County is undeniably unique," Krieg said.

Fire Chief William Goddard, who also serves as director of the county's Office of Emergency Management, echoed that sentiment.

"In my 40 years of doing this work I have never seen such a very, very strong relationship between government and the private sector," said Goddard, who replaced Joseph Herr when he retired in February.

"It is my philosophy to take all the help I can get, and what CERN has offered in terms of supplying a resource pool is beyond anything the county could manage on its own," he said.

As the CRT gets off the ground, Lasky said, she will draw on knowledge gathered from her work in pandemic flu and business continuity planning. APL is the county's largest employer except for the public school system, and a not-for-profit business that bills itself as "enhancing national security through science and technology."

And she will stress the objectives of CERN's three- to five-year strategic plan, which kicked off in December 2008. These include educating the public about being prepared to shelter in place for 14 days, ensuring that all businesses have continuity of operations plans, and training an emergency corps of citizen volunteers. Detailed information on these topics is available online at cernhc.org.

One of her priorities will be bringing county businesses and nonprofits up to speed in emergency preparedness planning, said Lasky.

"Most Howard County businesses are small businesses, but nonetheless they all require a continuity plan," she said. "After 2001, it was my observation that businesses with a plan were the ones that survived."

Even before Sept. 11, APL had an emergency information-technology plan in place, she said, adding that "since then, we have done our planning with a lot more determination."

To encourage more small businesses and nonprofits to participate in continuity planning, Lasky helped develop a one-page document that can be completed in about two hours.

"Nowhere else have I seen something that simple," she said.

CERN has met with several business owners to assist them in creating this vital document, she said, noting there are do-it-yourself instructions on CERN's Web site.

"The main point is that this is simple and does not require a huge investment of time," she said.

Pam Klahr, president of the Howard County Chamber of Commerce and a member of CERN since shortly after its inception, said it's been tough going to get businesses involved.

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