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Oklahoma hosts national agroterrorism conference

It is not uncommon to hear about emergency preparedness planning for threats to human and animal health caused by disease, natural disaster or deliberate attacks of terrorism. But it is uncommon to hear about such preparedness being developed in case of attacks against agricultural crops, rangeland and forests.

One of the leaders in that area has been the National Institute for Microbial Forensics and Food and Agricultural Biosecurity (NIMFFAB) at Oklahoma State University, which recently sponsored its third in a series of plant health emergency exercises in Oklahoma City.

"This exercise was part of our plan for a series of events to identify priorities and to bring together law enforcement and the agricultural community to establish policies for a response to such an event," said Jacque Fletcher, director of NIMFFAB.

Fletcher said the first gathering helped identify the priorities and establish the science of microbial forensics as it applies to plant pathogens; the second exercise brought the two communities together for the first time for cross training.

The 2009 meeting let each group practice their roles in a changing (practice) environment where new details were revealed as the incident evolved.

"This third exercise was deliberately more challenging than the two previous events, focusing on the actions and interactions that would have to occur in a real incident, and giving us an idea where there are gaps in our planning and response, and identify the need for further exercises and training," Fletcher said.

This year's exercise outlined a hypothetical scenario in which a disease appeared in a major Oklahoma crop, which was later determined to be intentionally introduced. Participants then examined what resources would be brought to bear to address the various stages of the event from initial identification all the way to the final remediation and recovery.

At each step, teams of participants explored how the agricultural, scientific and law enforcement communities would respond and interact to assure public safety and the recovery and integrity of the agricultural community, all the way to the possible identification of how the outbreak was created and those responsible for it.

"We brought together a lot of diverse talent from the federal, state and local levels, not only for an intellectual exchange but to help strengthen relationships and understanding of each others' strengths and challenges," said Carla Thomas, deputy director, western region, of the National Plant Diagnostic Network.

"In our field exercise last year we learned a lot about the difference in our cultures, from the scientific to the law enforcement and regulatory environments," said Thomas. "In the year since then, we've had time to reflect on those lessons and this time we're finding new levels of understanding among those who will be brought together should a real event occur."

For Sheryl Maddox, director of homeland security for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the exercise was important because it was done locally, with local perspectives.

"We can train all we want nationally, but any incident is going to start locally, so unless we exercise locally, we're not going to be as successful," she said. "I also look for gaps, what are the things we're not looking at, what have we not thought of, that through this type of planning we can identify now and not scramble to solve in the middle of a disaster."

Among those participating in the exercise were representatives from the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service; the Oklahoma Agricultural Experiment Station; the OSU College of Osteopathic Medicine; the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry; the National Plant Diagnostic Network; the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the USDA; the Department of Homeland Security; the Federal Emergency Management Agency; the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Oklahoma Highway Patrol.

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