Bush's CDC is a freak accident waiting to happen

CDC has discovered a new way a bird can cause bird flu: its own incompetence:

A laboratory building that contains a deadly strain of avian flu and other germs is among four that lost power for more than an hour Friday when a backup generator system failed again at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Alison Young, Atlanta Journal Constitution)

The outage was due to a bird causing a Georgia Power transformer to fail.

As Tom Skinner, CDC spokesperson/flack points out, power outages happen and at a complex campus like CDC's they are unavoidable. Powered systems are not the only safeguard that labs with dangerous agents use as barriers. Unfortunately, Alison Young's excellent reporting on CDC mishaps in the AJC make pretty clear this isn't a very good excuse. Let's talk about the power outages first and then some of the other barriers.

You can protect against the consequences of power outages in how you design your power system. The safest designs have redundancies. They don't depend on a single power source for all the vulnerable facilities. CDC was told this by its chief engineer, Johnnie West:

The AJC reported last summer that government construction engineers had warned since 2001 that CDC's planned design for its centralized backup power generation system would not keep crucial lab systems from failing in an outage.

"I've been saying this for over three years now, but having the generators in this configuration gives us no protection whatsoever from many types of failures," CDC mechanical engineer Johnnie West wrote in an August 2003 e-mail to agency officials, one of several reviewed by the AJC.

CDC officials have said that despite West's concerns, the consensus of experts was that a centralized generator farm was better than having individual units at buildings.

I'm not sure who the "experts" were who were more expert than CDC's mechanical engineer, but there you have it. What about the other safeguards? These labs cannot be made safe from all possible freak accidents and occurrences. What you try to do is minimize the number of labs where such accidents will have consequences, something neither CDC nor the Bush administration is doing (they don't even know how many there are or where they are). And freak accidents seem to occur in the CDC labs with some regularity, to the point where they are no longer freakish. Here are the ones the Atlanta Journal Constitution was able to find in the last year or so (not counting last Friday):

May 18, 2007: Blasting of granite by a CDC construction contractor sent rock flying, shattering two exterior windows in Building 15, including one on a floor 150 feet away from a maximum-containment Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4) lab that work with deadly germs such as Ebola. Rocks also damaged windows at Building 17, about 50 feet away from a high-containment Biosafety Level 3 (BSL-3) lab.

May 25, 2007: Nine workers were tested for possible exposure to Q fever, a bioterror agent, after a ventilation system in Building 18 malfunctioned and pulled potentially contaminated air into a "clean" corridor. Nobody was infected. Duct tape now seals the Q fever BSL-3 lab door in what CDC says is an added precaution until a new door is installed.

June 15, 2007: A lightning strike knocked out power for an hour at Building 18; backup generators did not come on. Nearby construction work had damaged a key component of the building's grounding system.

Dec. 8, 2007: During a planned evacuation drill of Building 18's labs that was designed to simulate a power outage, emergency lights initially came on but failed after 10 minutes when a technician inadvertently shut off a back-up power system, according to a CDC after-action report obtained by the AJC.

Dec. 18, 2007: Building 18 had a real evacuation after its new medical waste incinerator was started for a test and vented smoke into the high-containment lab area. Excessive heat caused the incinerator's bypass stack to tear away from its anchor bolts, internal records show.

These events didn't loose an Andromeda strain on us. That's not the point.

The incompetent way CDC is managed is the point.

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Our local hospital's back-up generator didn't come on when it was supposed to either. Apparently it was due to a dead battery. What's the use of back-up systems, if they don't function when they are supposed to?

Hard to decide whether the author is mad at the world or just was frightened by CDC leadership when he was a tiny baby.

By John Cornelson (not verified) on 14 Jul 2008 #permalink

Maybe the administrators are political appointees who believe asking a supernatural being to watch over their facilities is all that's needed for safety...

With all of these storms we keep losing power and finally decided to get an emergency generator. The hardware store was out of generators, so my husband searched and found one at mainpowerconnect.com we should now have the power needed when the next unexpected outage comes. The generator will keep the lights on, food cold and our air conditioning working. Hopefully the generator will also keep our sump pump working to protect the basement from flooding.

I used to live in Atlanta. Power outages from thunder storms are a given during the summer and occur much more often than in other places I've lived with similar weather (the thunderstorm/tornado belt in the Midwest, Washington DC), which doesn't say much for Pepco and the way it manages its grid. I used to refer to Atlanta as "the city that doesn't work" because of this kind of stuff. I sat through power outages at the airport on more than on occasion--Atlanta is the kind of place where it's easy to feel like you're in a Banana Republic. CDC should know this and have appropriate systems, esp. since most CDCers know what a screwed-up place Atlanta is. This really is a sign of how incompetently run the place has become.

There's that word "consensus" being used around the second word "expert" again.

I have one thats much better and with no safeguards....Air Traffic Control at JFK and Newark. Take your pick on their low bid power systems. Same in Miami. Florida Power and Electric was commonly referred to as Florida Flicker and Flash.

If you have centralized power systems then you have centralized and complete failures of all systems. Redundancy?

Revere, what would happen if all power went out at CDC as a post effect of onset of nationwide BF. No electricity means no fuel production. What measures could they take? Burn it? Cant do that if there is no fuel. I am interested because the power goes off down there frequently due to load shedding. What would happen if say they had a disaster that took the grid and ability to run generators? Would that stuff start growing on the walls? Would "it" get out?

By M. Randolph Kruger (not verified) on 14 Jul 2008 #permalink

Randy: I don't think the failure of the grid or fuel delivery would make us less safe from these labs. The stuff would just stay put and a lot of it would die in culture. Work would decrease and with it the danger of accident. Soa pandemic would improve lab safety but everything else would be more dangerous so it doesn't encourage me.

If the building is taking hits from lightning and flying blocks of granite I don't think fixing the electrical system will resolve your problems.

Scott: That's why the post wasn't focused on the electrical system but management and its decisions.

As a young engineer, I worked for a great manager, whose like I have not seen since, and who told me that he started under another great engineering manager who told him, "A good engineer needs to have independent means." By that he meant there are always some bean-counters in upper management who want to do whatever will make the next fiscal quarter's results look best, regardless of the long-term effects or risks, and it can be very difficult to resist their pressures on you to give them the technical justification they seek.

So here's to my mechanical engineering colleague, Johnnie West. (I hope he has independent means.)

You go Edward Hammond.

As far as Rep Joe Bartons comment, "despite apparent gaps in federal oversight, it should keep in mind that the biodefense work is critical to the nation's health and security".
Truthfully I just don't buy this anymore.
What is "critical" is DoD employees would lose jobs.

And where's the final recommendations that were due in May of 2007?

Are these the same "consensus experts" who want to move the BSL 4 vet lab from Plum Island to the heart of livestock country?

That's what I was afraid of...

Marissa, backup generators (like all backup systems designed to come online only when needed) must be regularly tested to make sure they actually will work as intended.

backup generators can indeed fail due to their batteries draining, leaving their starter engines unable to function. regular --- usually at least monthly, better yet weekly --- runs of the generator can help keep those batteries charged, but like any car battery, they'll eventually wear out and need replacing. that, too, is a condition one typically finds out about during regular testing.

highly reliable systems need to have everything redundant, never rely on a single item for anything to work. typically you'd install multiple generators, not just multiple batteries for a single generator. yes, all this duplication --- plus all the circuitry and failsafes to ensure at least one of the redundant items (and sometimes no more than one) comes on when needed --- does get very expensive. that leads to the problem JimV describes...

By Nomen Nescio (not verified) on 14 Jul 2008 #permalink

These incidents at class 4 and class 5 labs are old news; perhaps not this particular event, but in general. Preparedness, whether be it for power or security boils down to funding, and there is not adequate funding to provide security in either the hundreds of class 4 labs or even battery or generator backup in our medical system. Generators run on fuel, and in a black out, fuel pumps would stop running, truck transport would end, and the system would basically collapse. This can be stated and restated in various ways and has over years. Labs are not secure, power is not secure, and vulnerability to viral outbreak in an ever present reality.


By Medclinician (not verified) on 14 Jul 2008 #permalink

Medclinician: I assume you mean class 3 and class 4 labs (there is no class 5) but that is a minor detail. I think I would express your main point differently. Preparedness does not boil down to funding (implying that the only thing that keeps us from being prepared is money) but funding is an important element. It's just not the only one, nor even necessarily the most important one. Again, this is an opinion, not a fact, but I would say that the most important element in preparedness is an attitude about what we are willing to do for each other together with a sane appreciation of the risk. In other words, our willingness to make our communities robust and resilient in the face of the many plausible risks that are out there.

Nomen, you're right. They now inspect it daily. But more than one battery and back-up generator? Nope; overruled by senir management--was in the paper.

I wish I were surprised.

I saw better preparedness for power outages back when I worked for dotbombs. I'm specifically referring to the now-defunct Network Commerce Inc., which had some real worldclass incompetents minding the store.

I was there for just over a year.

They made sure the backup generator was there, and was checked at regular intervals. They also vetted each and every colo site. And they monitored uptime around the clock, 24/7/365.

When one of our outsourced hosting providers screwed up, in early 2000, and we had multiple sites go down, they caught merry hell.

And Network Commerce didn't even host pathogens. Just websites.

By Charles Roten (not verified) on 15 Jul 2008 #permalink

Why title this Bush's CDC? Why try to make political statement when it was a bird in a transformer that was the problem? Be more objective.

Why try to make political statement when it was a bird in a transformer that was the problem?

if you think a bird in a transformer was the real problem, you have badly missed revere's point.

if a bird shutting down a transformer can cause any problem whatsoever for a biosafety level 4 laboratory, then adequate precautions have clearly not come anywhere close to being taken. why not? we'd look at management to find that out; and that leads us to the political administration of the CDC. see the connection now?

By Nomen Nescio (not verified) on 15 Jul 2008 #permalink

Jesus Christmas!!

Another unhinged Democrat Party attempt at blaming President Bush for something that is not of his doing. Sorry folks, but the CDC has been in business FAR LONGER than Bush, or his father, has been in office.

Unless President Bush is physically at the CDC complex running the day to day operations, I fail to see how President Bush can even be remotely blamed for anything that happens there. This mentality is akin to blaming a professional sports teams management for the hideous way the players approach the game. The managers don't play the game, the players do and this analogy fits perfectly into this story.

And for the record, I'm an Idependent voter and have no political dog in this fight, rather I have a brain and can think for myself and would take to task ANY such attempt at such this pathetic argument to blame this President, or any sitting President regardless of political affiliation.

By Thirteenburn (not verified) on 15 Jul 2008 #permalink

@ Thirteenburn
You've got a bit of a point, in that the dismantling of public health infrastructure nationally and world-wide began during the Reagan administration. It has continued in fits & spurts ever since. The present occupier of the White House does not have to be physically present to gum things up. His appointees, policies, and other tools of power have been effective enough.

By dubiquiabs (not verified) on 15 Jul 2008 #permalink

I have known and worked with folks over at the CDC for awhile now and I have been continually impressed with their huge egos and utter lack of respect for people working in other disciplines, i.e. other than the health related industry. I never met more disrepectful people in my life. I also never saw a federal agency waste more money that the CDC or the Department of Health and Human Services. The CDC really can waste money.

If you want lessons in arrogance, just go to thier visitors center in Atlanta, which they spent 100 million tax payer dollars on. That is right $100,000,00.00 on a visitors center. It is really something for those of you taking your hard earned vacations in Atlanta, GA. Othe r federal agencies could never get away with spending that kind of money on a visitor's center.

I have little respect for them as I know how they operate. I am never surprised to hear stories like this. I wish there was more investigative reporting on their management.

By bigdudeisme (not verified) on 17 Jul 2008 #permalink

bigdude: My experience, too, although I have worked with them for decades and this is a change. It is the Bush CDC under Gerberding, although some of it existed before that, too. It has just ramped up dramatically. Regarding investigative reporting, Alison Young at the Atlanta Journal Clonstitution has done a remarkable job. You can find links to all of her CDC stories over at CDC Chatter, the unofficial CDC blog.

As a slightly tangential confirmation on the latest thread, it seems all departments of our federal government have lost all perspective about whom it is they (supposedly) serve. They're great with all the latest patronizing euphemisms (e.g. stakeholders - for citizens they're supposedly serving). But to the point: you should see the palace CMS (Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) had built for themselves within the last few years, in Baltimore. Just to give you an idea - all marble floors and stairwells, with brass railings; marble tile, mirrors and rosewood in their elevators(!). Their conference rooms - like those found in any Fortune 500 CEO's executive suites. There digs are nicer than any of the contractors' company offices that work for them. Taxpayer dollars at work!!