Westchester's Bio-terrorism and Disaster Training Facility

The newest addition to New York Medical College’s Valhalla campus is an unassuming brown-brick building that, as of October, is capable of playing host to disaster drills that range from simulated meth labs and war zones to emergencies created by Mother Nature.

The building, officially named the Center of Excellence in Precision Responses to Bio-terrorism and Disasters, is the first in the Hudson Valley to train Westchester County first responders in medical preparedness. Centers of excellence are facilities that provide research and training in a focus area.

“This is the only center that’s first-responder-centric, medical-centric,” says Michael J. Reilly, PhD, director of the Center for Disaster Medicine. This center focuses specifically on disaster and bioterrorism responses.

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The state’s Development Division of Science, Technology, and Innovation, or NYSTAR, funded $500,000 to the center for Year One, to be matched by the medical college.

The center’s Valhalla location, meanwhile, provides an ideal setting for continuity of operation. “Westchester is outside of the compromising zone of New York City,” says Robert Amler, MD, NYMC’s dean of the School of Health Sciences and Practice. “It is survivable in the vast majority of scenarios.”

The center has three mission components: disaster medicine, medical countermeasures, and precision medicine. The last of these, which involves the linking of genetic information to a growing database, is one of the center’s long-term goals.

In the meantime, the center has ambitious Year One goals. By October, Reilly would like the center prepped for at least one first-responder training program a month.

In 2014, the center ran pilot programs. Each program put up to 20 first responders — trained medical staff, such as law-enforcement paramedics — into “real” possibilities at the simulated environment in the building’s back section.

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Designed to disorient, there is one corridor, for example, that’s painted black and white, to prevent depth perception; it fills up with smoke or blinds the participants with light as they search for victims, assess damage and administer medical care. There’s also a one-bedroom apartment that is used as a drug den or war zone, filled with actors playing dealers, victims, or aggressors.

“The situations can evolve,” says Reilly. Even with the same group, the scenario constantly changes. In some, a first responder might be killed. In others, there might be multiple victims who don’t react as expected to the medicine.

“You can teach anyone anything in a classroom,” says Reilly, “but this trains paramedics to be in stressful situations.”


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