News Column

Former Saltsburg Elementary School eyed for disaster preparedness site

July 25, 2014

By Greg Reinbold, The Blairsville Dispatch, Pa.

July 25--A nonprofit emergency preparedness group is raising money to fund its plans to turn the former Saltsburg Elementary School building in the Kiski Flats area of Loyalhanna Township into a disaster preparedness center.

Medical Disaster Response, Inc. envisions the 52,000-square-foot building on 9.5 acres serving as a "medical surge facility," according to board president Mahmood "Mike" Usman. The facility also would be used as a training center and storage site for emergency vehicles, medical supplies and mass shelter equipment.

"The idea of medical surge is medical capacity or hospital capacity that you can bring online when there's a lot of ill or injured people and the hospitals are overwhelmed," said Usman, who works as medical director for NHS Human Services'Pittsburgh region.

Medical Disaster Response, which formed in 2013, had explored converting a former nurses' dormitory at Torrance State Hospital into a disaster preparedness center, but it determined the location was not feasible due to projected renovation costs. Usman said the nonprofit and Excela Health were in talks regarding the former Jeannette District Memorial Hospital property in January, but Excela has moved forward with preparations to demolish the building.

Blairsville-Saltsburg School District auctioned the school and its contents separately, with the school board voting in January 2012 to award the sale of the property to Ruebel Inc. of Saltsburg for $212,000. Usman said Medical Disaster Response has signed a memorandum of understanding with the property owner to conduct a feasibility study and prepare designs, but the group is still negotiating terms for a long-term lease or purchase.

Leo "Guy" Napolillo, vice president of the Medical Disaster Response board and assistant director for Fayette County's emergency management agency, said the PA Region 13 Task Force, which includes representatives from 13 county emergency management agencies in southwestern Pennsylvania, identified a need for additional medical surge and training facilities several years ago.

"It started out as an unmet need," said Napolillo, who chairs the Region 13 Health and Medical committee. "A lot of the exercises that we've done and the planning that we've done call for a facility like this: A facility to use for training, a facility to use for excess capacity and what we call surge capacity. We just really hadn't seen anything that was fitting the bill."

Usman said northern Westmoreland County provides a central location that could accept patients from many hospitals around southwestern Pennsylvania and provide special needs shelter if, for example, a nursing home needed to be evacuated.

"If you have people from a nursing home that had to be evacuated because a pipe burst, you'd want to put them in a better setting than cots in a gym," Usman said. "This could be used for that, and currently we don't have anything like that in southwestern PA."

Southwestern Pennsylvania has numerous EMS "strike teams" with roughly 500 beds available to be dispatched to disaster sites to provide mobile medical surge capacity in hospital tents or buildings, Usman said. The proposed disaster preparedness center at the former Saltsburg Elementary building would supplement the mobile medical surge units and provide a fixed location for training and equipment storage.

"The problem with (the mobile medical surge units) is it's hard to handle seriously ill people in a tent," Usman said. "There usually isn't a lot of sanitary facilities, you don't want to have them operating in extreme weather, you also don't want to use them for an extended period of time, and you don't have information technology infrastructure. Those are all advantages of having a fixed facility."

Indiana County Emergency Management Agency director Tom Stutzman said he was not familiar with the group or the specifics of its plans, but having a dedicated medical surge facility would be a benefit to emergency management groups and hospitals in the area.

"We don't have that capability when a really large disaster occurs," Stutzman said. "So having the ability to handle large numbers of patients or overflow from the routine that's occurring every day, it's beneficial to have the ability that in any type of disaster situation, that surge can be addressed."

Stutzman said the Pittsburgh area has occasionally assisted refugees from abroad necessitating medical surge and mass sheltering capacity, like after the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, but large-scale disasters are too infrequent and random to garner significant government funding for creating a permanent medical surge facility.

Medical Disaster Response is seeking to fund the initial feasibility study and design work for the Saltsburg Elementary location by soliciting donations.

"We do want to raise the funds for the design phase and feasibility study at least through modest donations and crowd-sourcing," Usman said. "Then we plan to do most of the subsequent building improvements through grant funding."

As of Wednesday, the nonprofit's crowd-funding page on startsomegood.com had generated $2,570 toward its $40,000 "tipping point" goal to fund the feasibility study and design work with 40 days remaining. The project has an ultimate goal of $152,434 listed on the website.

"Everyone involved in this is experienced in disaster response and disaster management," Usman said. "We decided that the best way to do this is something new and independent, which isn't subject to, for example, some of the budget problems we're seeing in governmental organizations and some of the ongoing issues between health care entities in the region."

The first major project at the Saltsburg Elementary site, Usman said, would be construction of a 10,500-square-foot garage to store trucks, trailers and emergency response vehicles and renovations to the building's interior.

Westmoreland County Public Safety director Roland "Bud" Mertz and Loyalhanna Township Supervisor Mary Trunzo said they weren't familiar with the nonprofit group or its proposed disaster response center.

Greg Reinbold is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-459-6100, ext. 2913 or greinbold@tribweb.com.

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(c)2014 The Blairsville Dispatch (Blairsville, Pa.)

Visit The Blairsville Dispatch (Blairsville, Pa.) at www.triblive.com

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Source: Blairsville Dispatch (PA)


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