Plasma Physicist Takes on Emergency Response Role

By: Devin Reese
April 26, 2020
Est. Reading Time: 4 minutes
Devastating 2003 Cedar roaring into Scripps Ranch. Photo by John Gibbins/Union-Tribune.
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After he earned his Ph.D. in plasma physics from Stevens Institute of Technology, Jim Treglio applied his technical background to policy as an AAAS Congressional Science Fellow. Following a career in materials science, he is now retired and runs a consulting business. ESAL interviewed Treglio about the role he has played on a community emergency response team (CERT), as well as his practical ideas about how materials science might help flatten the curve of disease outbreaks.

DR: Is your interest in materials science, such as flammability, what got you involved with emergency response efforts?

Treglio: Actually, I got involved in community fire response after we suffered a massive fire here in San Diego County, one that burned thousands of homes. My house almost burned down.

We had all been evacuated, but a couple of friends snuck in to put out residual fires, including the one in my home. That got us all thinking about how civilians can help during a major national catastrophe.

DR: Those are some good friends!

Scripps Ranch CERT team in action. Photo courtesy of Ed Holler, first leader of Scripps Ranch CERT.

Treglio: Yes! And they went to the San Diego fire department and mobilized a Community Emergency Response Team program. In 2004, we were the first class to train as San Diego CERT volunteers. A CERT is broadly trained in disaster preparedness for a variety of hazards. That could be fire, floods, earthquake, hurricanes, etc. We learned emergency response skills, both medical and organizational.

DR: How does the role of a CERT volunteer compare to an emergency response professional?

Treglio: People studied the 1994 Northridge earthquake and other disasters and found that 1) It typically takes three days for responders to come from outside; and 2) It is dangerous for local people to try to help without training, but a little bit of training makes them invaluable.

DR: Does it take a long time to get trained up?

Treglio: About six weekends. In our case, we leveraged the training to create an organization for our community of Scripps Ranch. As part of the Scripps Ranch Civic Association, we became a model for what’s possible. We even got our boy scout troop involved in training exercises.

DR: How did your technical background support your role on the CERT Team?

Treglio: Scientists are trained to solve problems. In many emergencies that require rescue, you must quickly decide how to search, where to search, what sorts of buildings will go down.

When I was an engineering officer in the U.S. Navy, I was assigned to damage control. A Navy ship is sectioned off so that if one section gets impacted, the others survive. Each section has a damage control locker with emergency materials – masks, fire extinguisher, hole-plugging material, etc. I guided our CERT in adopting a damage control model to equip our Scripps Ranch community for emergencies. We divided the community into sections and equipped each one with a locker containing a range of equipment – fire extinguishers, stretchers, pry bars, flashlights, etc. With twenty lockers, we ensured that any home in the community would have quick access to supplies.

DR: How did your community CERT fund this array of lockers?

Treglio: We secured funding from insurance companies, from a construction group, and from our neighborhood association.

DR: How did your Scripps Ranch CERT coordinate with the local fire department to understand respective roles during an emergency?

Treglio: The fire department was on board, coming to some of our drills, coaching us afterwards towards improvement, and even coming to our post-training community parties. It was exactly how a CERT should be – able to function independently when necessary to fill gaps in emergency response, but also collaborating with local emergency responders.

DR: What advice would you give to someone else about getting involved with a CERT?

Treglio: If you can participate in a CERT program, it’s a way to really make a difference. We tend to look at the world and think that everything will remain normal. And then a big disaster hits, and people lose everything. Whether it is coronavirus or a hurricane or an earthquake or tornadoes, the first responders are always overwhelmed. People wander around not knowing what to do. Local teams are invaluable.

DR: Are you using your skills to address COVID?

Treglio: Not as an emergency responder, but I am considering how my background might inform development of surface treatments that incorporate antimicrobial materials. My son (in the same field) and I have come up with a vision for a way to produce antimicrobial metal plating.

DR: What would the plating be used on?

Treglio: The vision is to have antimicrobial doorknobs and other hardware, e.g. handles, that get touched a lot. Copper and silver keep microbes from reproducing. By adding these metals into a surface treatment, via plasma deposition, you could reduce the longevity of a virus. While this concept has been around for years, a feasible way to bring it to production has not.

DR: So, for the COVID virus, antimicrobial hardware could reduce transmission rates?

Treglio: Exactly. Instead of staying on a doorknob for three days, the virus might be gone in four hours. We are also considering how to make the surface hydrophobic so that droplets will fall off, instead of clinging to the metal. A drop of water, or sweat, on a stainless-steel doorknob provides a place for microbes to reproduce.

DR: I noticed that you also have a blog about Southern California wines. Does that interest relate to your plasma physics background?

Treglio: It mostly relates to my retirement hobby! With my background, it is hard to avoid getting into the science of making wine. I do talk to people, gather evidence, and try to put things in an orderly context of cause and effect. But the bottom line is that a great wine comes from the artistry of the winemaker.

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Engineers & Scientists Acting Locally (ESAL) is a non-advocacy, non-political organization. The information in this post is for general informational purposes and does not imply an endorsement by ESAL for any political candidates, businesses, or organizations mentioned herein.
Published: 04/26/20
Updated: 08/16/22
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