Thursday, November 7, 2002

Tomassoni joins statewide emergency team

Published in the Current

Dr. Anthony Tomassoni of Cape Elizabeth, the only medical toxicologist in the state, has been chosen to help prepare Maine for public health emergencies.

While his official title is “medical director, office of public health emergency preparedness,” what he really does, he said, is team-building.

Tomassoni is a humble man who avoids talking about what he will do without also mentioning many of the other players involved, and he encourages input from a wide range of people.

His experience is mixed, including teaching school, going to graduate school in chemistry and doing medical work in emergency medicine, toxicology and urban search-and-rescue.

“I still view myself as a teacher more than anything else,” Tomassoni said.

His experience learning varied material and working with diverse groups of people, he said, should serve him well in his new job, which he is doing alongside his previous job as director of the Northern New England Poison Control Center. Tomassoni, who was named to his new post last month, reports to the head of the state’s Department of Health.

In his work with emergency medicine and poison control, he does a lot of outreach, educating the public about ways to stay safe and how to handle chemicals carefully.

He was part of a so-called “planned deployment” of emergency personnel at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, as well as responses to the Worcester, Mass., fire in December 1999 and the World Trade Towers after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

With a new national focus on safety and emergency response, Tomassoni said Maine is well prepared for emergencies, even with a small population and not much money. “We’re a small state. People know people, and we tend to haul together as a team,” he said.

That kind of collaboration can make an emergency response very effective, he said.

One of his major priorities is to smooth the process of communications between agencies around the state. As people get more used to communicating about everyday events and developments in public health, he said, they will both use and create a system that is useful in emergencies as well.

Hospitals, he said, are already talking more to each other and to public safety agencies than before Sept. 11, leading him to think communications will be easily improved, and to great effect.

As a doctor, Tomassoni is concerned with public health infrastructure. Unlike the past, today’s immunization programs are not carried out at every school across the nation all at once. Hospitals no longer have spare beds, waiting for patients. Both are expensive, Tomassoni said, but national organization and spare capacity are both important for planning how to handle disasters.

“There’s not a lot of slack in the system that you can begin taking up in the event of an emergency,” he said.

He will work with health and government officials around the state to design a system that has extra capacity without a lot of idle resources. In colonial days, when communities needed extra space for an extraordinary situation, they looked to schools and churches. Tomassoni said that may need to happen again, if an emergency occurs. He wants to set up those options ahead of time, to help everyone be better prepared.

“There is no such thing as a perfect response. They’re always improvised,” Tomassoni said. That’s because nobody knows what the next disaster will be, or where or when it will occur. “There is no way to be 100 percent prepared” for every possibility, he said. Instead, he will be working to create a strong system that can respond to any type of disaster.

Part of it will involve expanding a monitoring system at the poison center, where Tomassoni has worked since 1995, to automate reporting and monitoring of illness reports beyond specific poisons. Creating a public health alert network will help officials better understand the scope and pace of development of any disasters that may occur.

He said his work has just begun, and the challenges are many. But he expects to help reach desired goals for the emergency preparedness system, and work with many different initiatives at once to make them happen.

“It just seemed like the right thing to do at the right time,” he said.