By Suzanne Rice, wife of COL (Ret) Bill Rice, Atlanta, Georgia
“We have to go shopping after dinner.”
“What are we shopping for?
“A wall clock.”
“Why do you need a clock?”
“I need it as a prop. I have to put on a play tomorrow at work.”
Bill was working in a newly-formed team called the Coordinating Office for Terrorism Preparedness (COTPER) at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta in the Spring of 2008. Many Americans may have thought this sort of team was already a part of the CDC especially after the terrorist attack on New York City on 9/11/01. However, that was not the case. Though the CDC is made up of brilliant doctors and world-renowned experts on the most dangerous organisms, diseases and illnesses, there had not been an emergency preparedness team at the CDC until 2005. The men of the CDC Emergency Operational Center (EOC) were there to bring a planning and operational dimension that had been lacking until the creation of the COTPER team.
When he joined the COTPER team, Bill brought with him particular skills that were needed on the team: his operational planning experience as honed at Third U.S. Army where as a Colonel, he had served as the Chief of Operations and Plans and, later, the G-3 for various exercises such as Blue Flag, Internal Look and Bright Star, as well as operations such as Operation Restore Hope (Somalia), Vigilant Warrior (Iraq) and Vigilant Sentinel (Iraq). However, in 27 years in the Army, he never was asked to be a playwright!
With the rest of the COTPER team, Bill had earlier briefed the relevant doctors and experts about how they would proceed if there was an outbreak of a pandemic such as the H5N1 Bird Flu. Unfortunately, the operational exercise that was to follow the briefing was totally mystifying to the people of the CDC. After the briefing, the doctors and experts asked for a dramatization of what they would be asked to do. They had not had any knowledge of or interest in doing anything but studying the pandemic – which, of course, would not be enough for our country if a real pandemic ever materialized. The mission of the COTPER group was to make a framework for how the U.S. would cope with any potential epidemic. In the case of an actual emergency, there would only be time to respond – not time to study the outbreak of the illness. A framework for action needed to be set in place.
So, we went shopping for a clock; the next day Bill and his colleagues dramatized the scenario of an epidemic in the U.S. and how the experts at the CDC could respond in the quickest and most effective way.
It was only after Bill’s funeral in June 2008 that his family realized what he and his colleagues on the COTPER team had accomplished. Dr. Julie Gerberding, the Director of the CDC, was out of town on the day of the funeral, so she sent her deputy, Dr. Richard Besser, to speak to us. They both wanted to be sure that we knew how important Bill’s work had been at the CDC. Dr. Besser said that Bill had taught them procedures and practices that they had never heard of and that this knowledge would be used when there was an emergency in the future. He said these new ideas would save thousands of American lives at the time of a national emergency. He said the doctors and experts had not understood what they should do – the thoughts were so foreign to them. Bill’s skit crystallized the scenario so well that they wished they had taped it for future use. No one had known at the time of the presentation of the skit that Bill would work at the CDC for only three months – he died suddenly as he was exercising in the CDC gym, only a few weeks after the play and the follow-on live training exercise.
Thanks to a play, a clock and the creation of the Coordination Office for Terror Preparedness and the CDC Emergency Operational Center, Americans are safer and the CDC is ready to protect us from potential health emergencies. According to his COTPER/EOC team, the preparations that Bill began in 2008 were the basis for the successful handling of the H1N1 flu epidemic of 2009 when that strain of the flu was found in the U.S. and 199 other countries.