This is a new one to me. Recently hundreds of people in the Victoria and Melbourne areas of Australia fell ill to what is being termed as thunderstorm asthma. Ambulance services were hit with nearly 2,000 calls in a 5-hour period, more than 6 times greater than normal call volume. And several people actually died because ambulance service could not arrive in a timely fashion.
So, what actually happened? Apparently strong winds and rain churned up tons of dust, pollen and other irritants into the breathable air. More specifically, pollen particles absorbed so much moisture in such a small period of time that each one burst into hundreds of smaller particles, flooding the air with micro-irritants which, thanks to their tiny size, are more easily able to penetrate our nasal passages than the larger “unburst” pollen particles. This same phenomenon actually happened in 2011 as well, but this latest incident was of greater magnitude.
As I initially alluded to, I’ve never heard of thunderstorm asthma before, but clearly it can throw a monkey wrench into emergency response efforts. Storm recovery is difficult enough under normal circumstances, and the addition of a mass-illness scenario certainly doesn’t help. I think the key takeaway here is to incorporate such a scenario into emergency preparedness exercises and drills wherever possible. Specific situations might include things like the unavailability of certain employees and first responders due to falling ill, unavailability of ambulance service if a crew member gets injured while working on the restoration, or even a general decrease in visibility.
Hopefully we won’t ever need to worry about such a phenomenon in the U.S. – it sounds like thunderstorm asthma might be specific to certain geographic areas – but the whole point of an emergency exercise is to test the limits of the recovery process and therefore the more monkey wrenches that can be incorporated into a drill scenario, the better.