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Out of Disaster
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 November 2005 Plain Talk for a New Generation

James Thomas, President, ASTM

Go to other Plain Talk for a New Generation articles.

Out of Disaster

This has been a year of natural disasters. The great tsunami in Asia. Hurricane Katrina in the United States. The earthquake in Islamabad. I thought a lot about what I would say in this column to the members of ASTM International, to their families and friends who have lost so much this year. It occurred to me that, of all people, they would be the ones who would appreciate the power of standards — properly applied — to pull them through. This column is dedicated to them and to the standards that they have helped create.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the U.S. Public Health Service contacted ASTM International and requested its hospital preparedness standard. The purpose of E 2413 is to answer questions regarding the minimal levels of preparedness needed for hospitals to deal with a large-scale terrorist attack or other serious emergency.

ASTM International’s Committee E 54 on Homeland Security Applications developed this guide. It deals with issues such as the process of organizing and planning a hospital response plan, the nature of supplies that hospitals need to make available, and an acceptable means to protect facilities for usual operation, patients, and staff while still providing an effective response. It also deals with the coordination of operations with community assets, including local emergency planning committees. And it addresses the effective development and utilization of a hospital vulnerability analysis.

The physical destruction and loss that accompany disasters are there for all to see, but confusion and disorientation are there too, and they take their own terrible tolls. The great power of standards lies in their ability to transform chaos into order. A standard like the one above says it up front. It anticipates the questions and answers them.

In each disaster zone that has been created this year, standards will be called on to rebuild – everything. Think of what it will take to recreate an entire infrastructure: water toxicity assessment, oil spill cleanup, land remediation, protective equipment for electrical workers, testing methodologies for determining whether fuels and lubricants — or other substances — are contaminated, concrete standards for bridge repair and paving materials for roads, glass for windows, and roofing shingles. These and thousands of other ASTM standards will be used in the days to come to rebuild communities that are now in ruin.

And speaking of the days to come, think about how those same standards will move up the technology curve, and give rise to new standards that will serve greater and different needs, needs that were not anticipated before the disasters struck. How will we think differently about roofing and wind damage, buildings that can better withstand earthquakes, and levees that will hold? Our standards, our members, will answer those questions, better than ever before.

There has never been a time when I have been prouder to serve the members of this organization. There has never been a time when I have been more keenly aware of the worth of and great good that is served by the work of the members of ASTM International. There is nothing we can do to prevent natural disasters. And we cannot restore what is lost. But we can rebuild, and in that rebuilding, find the way out of disaster.

James A. Thomas
President, ASTM

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