02/05/06 — County has new bioterrorism specialist

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County has new bioterrorism specialist

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on February 5, 2006 2:13 AM

Before his workday gets under way, David Hesselmeyer sits down at his computer and checks out the latest news. Beyond having a passing interest in current events, he said it is actually critical to his job as bioterrorism planning coordinator for the Health Department.

Hired at the end of November, Hesselmeyer is in a position that is new for many health departments across the state. As the world climate changes, emergency preparedness is becoming more necessary, he said.

"Without a doubt, I don't have access to the classified information that the CIA and FBI have, but if I can keep in touch with what the news organizations are doing, I can keep up to date with what's happening and what the possibility is and make connections to prepare," he said.

His main role is to plan for emergencies in the realm of public health. Whether that entails a natural disaster or something of a larger magnitude like a terrorist attack, his job is to coordinate the best possible response to protect citizens, he said.

When such things happen, he said, "there's no such thing as city boundaries or county boundaries," prompting other counties and regions to work together on preparedness efforts.

When the state first started receiving federal grant monies, response teams were started for each region in the state, he said. The seven teams have an average of five members, which typically meet, compare notes and combine efforts.

"I network a lot with Johnston County," he said. "There's many counties that are really working together. It lets us see how we're going to be able to really benefit each other in the future."

In some cases, his peers have been hired to do the same job, but must also wear other hats, Hesselmeyer said.

"It's a great benefit that (Health Director James) Roosen decided to hire someone solely for this. It allows us to become specialized in this and to operate on many levels," he said.

At age 26, Hesselmeyer said he has always had an interest in emergency services. He became a firefighter in 1997 and an EMS worker in 1999. The experiences prompted him to apply for the job in Wayne County.

"It combines the perfect amount of health issues, emergency-related issues, as well as a knowledge of history and current day politics," he said.

Prior to accepting the job, he worked full-time with Harnett County EMS. He had already received his bachelor's degree in government from Campbell University and in 2004, completed his master's degree in business administration from East Carolina University.

He and his wife, Amanda, a guidance counselor at Union Elementary School in Clinton, have been married since September 2004.

Hesselmeyer said his goal is to work with other managers in the Health Department and to become as much of an expert as possible. That requires training and education, which hopefully the public will also get involved in, he said.

"We're working on a lot of things to start getting information to the people," he said. "If the public is not able to be informed, it's kind of hard to say that the job here is done right. We're working here to help the citizens."

One Web site to investigate, he said, is www.ready.gov, an affiliate of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which deals with information on how the general public can become prepared for emergencies.

The Health Department has been proactive in keeping pace with the world situation, he said, mentioning the mass flu clinic held in October as an example.

While his job is still a novel idea, he said he is excited about the possibilities it offers.

"All of us in Region 3 feel like we're pretty much setting the bar. We're the ones working to state the expertise and what the strategies are. It's a new role in North Carolina, but we intend to take it and run with it and develop it the best we can," he said.

"There's always going to be errors, problems in any kind of emergency. If we train and have a good network to back us up, you'll see that those errors will be mitigated. There's no guarantee that we could actually foresee an event, but by just keeping up with the events. ... If you keep up with this information, it just lets you be better prepared for things that could happen."

Hesselmeyer said he looks forward to working with the people in Wayne County.

"(The job's) so new, but it's exciting. It adds another area to the Health Department that I get to kind of take the flag and run with it," he said.

Input from the public is always welcome, he added.

"Anyone with concerns about what we're doing, call the Health Department and ask for me. I'd be more than happy to try to answer questions for them and explain more in depth," he said.