When anthrax-laced letters reached the U.S. capitol, the national conscience turned from the overt danger of knives, box cutters, and bombs to the invisible threat of bioterrorism. Many people — including your meeting attendees — are worried.

The range of potential threats is broad, from nerve agents with immediate effect to compounds that temporarily disable the gastrointestinal tract. Key to those threats are the ways that the agents can be delivered: through food, drinking/cooking water, the air, and, as we know so well from recent events, the mail.

“Concerns among the general public are high,” reports Richard Obertots, Chief Focus Officer for MeetingMed, which is based in Warren, Ohio (www.meetingmed.com). MeetingMed's mission is to monitor and improve medical planning for meetings.

What can meeting professionals really do to protect their attendees? For one, says Obertots, they can think like terrorists. Try to determine what motivates terrorists to act. “There are meetings and events that may be more likely to be targeted for bioterrorism or violence.

“A commonly used intelligence community acronym is MICE: Money, Ideology, Conscience, and Ego,” he adds. “Meeting planners need to ask, ‘Is our organization's meeting one that might provide a great deal of publicity, effect, or MICE reward for terrorists?’”

In other words, a high-profile event hosting influential political leaders, set in one of the country's best-known landmarks, will be a bigger target than a relatively low-profile industry event in a second- or third-tier city.

“Biosecurity is a risk,” agrees Rick Werth, CPP, Event & Meeting Security Services, Franklin, Tenn., (www.eventsecurity.com), “but not one that should take precedence over all the other risks and issues that event and meeting planners should be managing. By making attendee security and safety a priority and being prepared, you will eliminate the vast majority of potential problems.”

Battling Fear

The real enemy, Obertots says, is fear. Travel plans have been curtailed, trade show attendance is down, hotel occupancy is down in major cities — all because of fear.

As so many government officials have advised, he says that we need to think rationally and understand that bioterrorism has affected a very small — and select — portion of the population. The common flu poses a greater threat to the general public than bioterrorism.

“Let's not kid ourselves here. For the most part, general medical emergencies have not been a high priority for many meeting planners or the industry,” says Obertots. “Now we're faced with exotic and potentially lethal agents. Focusing on general and sound principles of medical emergency readiness, education on what to look for regarding both ‘common’ and ‘terrorist’ induced illnesses and injuries and vigilance — without panic — will be step one.”

The goal for meeting professionals, then, is to allay those fears and reassure attendees that they have little to worry about.

“We need to be calm and rational,” says Thomas Yamokoski, PhD, a psychologist based in Akron, Ohio. “We don't want to overreact. People need to realize that the majority of activities we take part in are not targets for terrorists.”

Steps to Take

What planners can do, along with addressing attendees' fears, is focus on preventive — and pre-emptive — measures, and have practiced, tested, and refined protocols in place for use when an emergency arises.

Meeting professionals should focus on the fundamentals of event health security. (For checklists, visit MeetingMed's Web site at www.meetingmed.com). Quick response is important. Obertots suggests that planners check to see if their site is equipped with automated external defibrillators, also known as AEDs, that can be used by the general public. Food service should be monitored. And planners should involve paramedics in the planning and schedule an ambulance to be on-site during the event.

Remember, right now many potential attendees are focused on travel concerns. New risk assessments for travelers is ongoing. So it may be more important for meeting planners to consider health issues for attendees.

Old Threats Linger

“Use your senses — and use common sense,” says Obertots. “The intensity of meetings tends to hasten illnesses and injuries due to stress, sleep deprivation, overexertion, overindulgence, getting off medication schedules, and simply pushing too hard. Most of these can be managed, but most people involved with meetings, especially planners and managers, do not give themselves the opportunity to avoid medical problems.”

The real medical dangers at most events, then, will be the same medical dangers that existed before September 11 — except for the fear factor, which could overshadow many events in the months to come.

“Yes, bioterrorism has infected meetings,” he says. “But we already ‘terrorize’ our meetings and events — and ourselves — with our habits and our lack of medical emergency preparation. Make medical emergency management ‘mission critical,’ and whatever happens, you will have the systems and practices in place to reasonably manage your meeting.”

NOTHING TO FEAR BUT FEAR ITSELF

“Life is dangerous,” says Thomas Yamokoski, PhD, an Akron, Ohio, psychologist. “We can't eliminate every danger in our lives. But we can do things to allay our fears.”

The American Red Cross offers these suggestions post-9/11:

  • Avoid exposure to media coverage. Repeated viewing of the disaster can slow down your ability to recover from the stress associated with it.

  • Talk it out. Talk about your feelings and thoughts with somebody you trust. Talking makes it easier to work through what happened and helps you deal with the pain and fear.

  • Ask for help. If your emotions are still strong and you are having nightmares or experiencing physical problems, consider seeking professional help.

  • Be especially kind to others. Reassure yourself that there is kindness and caring in the world. Offer your assistance to someone who needs help.

  • Spend time with your family.

  • Return to your usual routine.

  • Sit under a tree, or look at a brook, lake, river, or ocean. Nature can be very calming in unsettled times.

  • Remind yourself of other times when you were afraid. Remember that you were able to deal with that fear and that it doesn't last forever.