UGA Researcher Hopes for Best, Helps America Prepare for Worst

drill-2010-magazineDr. Cham Dallas has testified in front of congressional panels, advised federal agencies, conducted mass casualty exercises in nearly all of Georgia’s 150 hospitals, published volumes of research on nuclear war preparedness and given, by his estimate, more than 400 lectures on weapons of mass destruction.

Regardless of his audience, whether it’s a collection of graduate students or Senator Joe Lieberman, the chairman of the U.S. Senate’s Homeland Security Committee, he always tells them one thing: It’s not a matter of if there will ever will be a WMD used on American soil, but when.

“I think it’s approaching a certainty,” said Dallas, the director of the University of Georgia’s Institute of Disaster Management (DMAN). “And it’s not something that’s much out of the way or considered to be a marginal opinion any more.”

Dallas feels that within 10 to 20 years, a WMD, possibly a nuclear device, will be detonated in a major U.S. city. His primary justification is that the rapid evolution of technology has made what was once deemed merely a possibility into something that is, by his assessment, inevitable.

“What we have is this technology becoming widely disseminated,” Dallas said. “Let’s say we have  technology for DVDs, and that’s a great thing. We want everyone in the world to have access to that since it improves the quality of life and boosts the world economy.

But, when it comes to technology for WMDs, it’s not [great].” Understanding the threats posed to not just the United States, but the global community at large, has long been the driving focus of Dallas. Regarded as one of the nation’s premier experts on mass destruction defense scenarios, he views challenges confronting the world today graver than those of the past 50 years.

This is largely due to the collapse of the traditional Cold War paradigm that dominated foreign policy thought for the latter part of the 20th century. With two superpowers controlling the nuclear arsenals, the United States and Soviet Union relied on Mutual Assured Destruction as a deterrent to an armed conflict.

The rationale was simple: Despite their differing economic, political and social systems, both nations possessed a desire for self-preservation that made an exchange of nuclear weapons unacceptable.

The collapse of the Soviet Union permanently altered that balance. Additionally, in recent years, new  nations have sought access to the nuclear club. According to Dallas, while the U.S. and Russia have   recently agreed to reduce their existing arsenals, other areas of the globe are engaged in a vigorous nuclear arms race.

The key point of focus is on the Middle East and South Asia, where Pakistan and India currently have  expanding nuclear arsenals, and Iran is desperately seeking to develop them. It’s the persistence of the latter that is of most concern to Dallas.

Iran has a radical Shiite Islamic government that is surrounded by Sunni Islamic states, and, given the  ancient tensions between these two Islamic groups, it’s a recipe for trouble. Dallas said that France, for instance, has recently sold key components of nuclear technology to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Sunni nations in recent years.

“The leaders in the Sunni nations are smart people, and they understand that the major Shiite power, Iran, will be nuclear armed very soon,” Dallas said. “It’s been the same since the days of catapults and  trebuchets, except this is a nuclear arms race now. When you get these kinds of passions, the threat to use WMDs is accelerated even more.”

This includes the rise of Islamic extremist terrorist organizations, which Dallas noted take actions based on rigid ideological reasoning, thus making them a very dangerous threat.  “At some point, WMDs such as nuclear weapons, as well as other forms like biological and chemical weapons, will expand to a point where it reaches a group that is no longer constrained by superpower status or concerned with its cities being devastated,” Dallas said.

“There are groups of people who can use these weapons clandestinely, and it will simply be difficult to  determine who they are.”

Given this alarming reality, DMAN has placed its focus on providing the  necessary training and preparedness research for those critical front-line responders responsible for homeland security and public health.

Dallas said more progress has been made on security than in public health. For instance, New York City  has installed a vast network of radiation monitors throughout the city that can detect even the tiniest  emissions.

This isn’t to say there aren’t deficiencies, and Dallas pointed to the physical and political challenges the federal government faces in securing the U.S./Mexico border.

From a public health standpoint, however, many of the same problems that existed prior to 9/11 remain. There are ample problems related to interagency communications as well as obvious physical barriers as well, such as one group of first responders using a different radio frequency from another group.

There are cultural challenges between the security and public health infrastructures as well – or, as Dallas referred to them, “the guys with guns and the do-gooders.” He said the two groups are philosophically suited to do completely different things, yet it’s vital they work together during times of crisis.

“One of our roles is to try and bridge these cultural gaps and get them to work together,” Dallas said. DMAN and the College of Public Health are going to offer a graduate certificate in disaster management to those training for both areas, for instance.

Dallas has devoted a large portion of his research to the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, and his findings offer a wealth of information on what these responders will be dealing with should a nuclear attack occur.

“When we have a nuclear attack in a city, we’ll have hundreds of thousands of people coming up on our  security perimeter,” he said. “They’ll be coming to seek help from our medical and public health personnel, and because of our Chernobyl experience, for example, we learned the first triage question we’ll ask them when they reach the perimeter.”

That question will lead to, in many cases, an unthinkable diagnosis. Based on the data from Chernobyl, Dallas and other researchers were able to determine that workers who exhibited symptoms of radiation sickness (nausea, vomiting and diarrhea) within 30 minutes of exposure had very little chance of survival.

Those who didn’t develop symptoms until after four hours, however, had markedly better chances of survival. It’s that type of information that can help make a difference.

“The curriculum we developed has now been presented to more than 60,000 medical and public health personnel across the country,” Dallas said. “And, as I tell them, the most important people when those events do finally occur, are going to be the public health , medical care and security personnel.

“Those workers, in my opinion, will become the most critical people in our society in a crisis. The number of people we have trained in those areas are small, and that has to change as these crises become increasingly more likely.”

– Johnathan McGinty

Posted August 26, 2011.