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Caldwell Joins State Bioterrorism Team

Thirteen and half years ago, Lucy Caldwell was hired as the Virginia State Police's public information officer.

"I was the first state person in the field for the State Police," Caldwell said. "The job was mine to create and mold."

Beginning Tuesday, Dec. 10, Caldwell, a Fairfax resident, is again stepping into the unknown. She has accepted a job as one of four regional public information officers for the state Department of Health's Emergency Preparedness and Response Program. In all, 138 positions are being filled on the state and local level for the newly created bioterrorism-related jobs, funded through a combination of two federal grants totaling $23.75 million and $1.8 million in state funds.

The program will have five regional response teams as well an epidemiologist and emergency response coordinator, formerly called a bioterrorism coordinator, for each of the 35 health districts including Fairfax, Arlington and Loudoun counties and the City of Alexandria.

"One-third of the staff has been hired. A lot of the local epidemiologists and emergency response coordinators have been hired and all of the state positions have been filled," said Trina Lee, public relations coordinator, Office of Epidemiology for the state Health Department. "We're now filling the regional positions and the people like Lucy are breaking ground."

THE FOCUS of the new employees will be bioterrorism, but they will also be involved in any public-health emergency such as tracking cases of meningitis, hepatitis, syphilis, HIV, salmonella, E. coli and West Nile virus.

Caldwell job will be to help provide information to the public and facilitate the media's access to the medical experts.

"In the arena of public health, the public is interested in information. We are media and public-relations trained, but so many times it's more appropriate for the medical professionals to answer the questions," Lee said.

When Caldwell started with the police, education and awareness were her intent, but over the years, she became the face and voice for the department, covering an area that incorporated Northern Virginia, Fredericksburg, Culpeper and Winchester.

"My purpose was to highlight the troopers … and highlighting safety issues," Caldwell said. "I wanted to highlight the troopers as people not just robots writing tickets. They really care … and [their] job is very draining emotionally and physically."

Once she became the spokesperson for the police, Caldwell was on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with the exception of two seven-week maternity leaves when she had her sons Gus, 11, and Jack, 4. Caldwell's husband, Chris, is a native of Vienna and works in public relations for Food Distributors International in Falls Church.

By being on the scene of accidents, floods and other police actions, she was often the only person available to speak to the media when news was breaking, even though she preferred to have an officer talk to the press whenever possible.

Besides representing the state police locally, Caldwell also traveled across the country training other troopers on the needs of the media and she has been featured on several national and international programs. Even so, she felt it was time to turn in her police pager.

"I didn't want to be 50 and jumping guardrails," said Caldwell, who turns 40 in February. "I've been rewarded by this job."

The T.C. Williams High School graduate said one powerful memory was getting to visit Lorton prison while it was still in operation. "I had grown up here and always wondered what it was like. It is an awesome responsibility to take away someone's freedom," she said.

Caldwell said she is going to miss the troopers and dispatchers she has come to know over the years, but she will not miss being paged at all hours of the night to respond to an accident. Last Thursday, for example, her day began at 4 a.m., by walking the mile from her house to the state police headquarters in Fairfax, in the snow.

"My husband got to know so many of the reporters because they would call the house," Caldwell said. "I think this will be an adjustment for my kids. I've been on a phone or pager their entire lives."

IT WILL BE ADJUSTMENT for the police, as well, Caldwell will not be replaced because of budget issues.

"Lucy had an understanding of the objectives of the media in Northern Virginia and she projects a positive image of the police," said Lt. Curtis Bailey, the second in command at the state police headquarters. "The things the troopers do, if Lucy didn't provide the information, no one would know about it. Citizens need to know they are getting their money's worth."

Curtis has known Caldwell for 12 years although he has only been stationed in Fairfax for little over a year. He describes Caldwell as being dedicated to the department, but more importantly, "She's very nice. She's a lady and she's a very dedicated mother."

Lee said it was Caldwell's extensive knowledge of the media in the region and the experience in the emergency response field she gained from working with the police that made her ideal for the new program.

"She obviously has an enormous amount of energy and a commitment in providing the public information," Lee said.

Caldwell will be reporting to Richmond initially while the logistics of the new response team are being worked out. Lee said, Caldwell's office will again be in Fairfax in all likelihood. And once again, Caldwell will be getting a new pager, but she "probably won't be called at four in the morning," Lee said.