Preparedness Exercise a Best Practice

Over the last few months I’ve been working with a county health department through my role as chair of our local VOAD (Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster).  This work has revolved around an exercise that is required of them for Points of Distribution, or PODs.  PODs, if you don’t know, are designated locations where a local health department can bring in citizens for inoculations or prophylaxis in the event of an epidemic or other severe health event.  PODs can also be used for distribution of commodities, such as food, water, or tarps, in the event of other disasters.  There exist standards of practice for PODs – from the management system (the incident command system, or ICS), to the stations the POD is organized in.  The exercises are required by way of the state and federal health preparedness grants that the local health departments receive to ensure that the plans are tested and the personnel are practiced.

Early in the planning stages for this exercise, the health department decided they would use this exercise as a way of contributing to the preparedness of the community.  They had the funding available to provide basic preparedness kits for 300 families and would use the POD stations to provide information and kit materials to those who went through it.  What a great idea!

The local health department could have done this on their own, but instead chose to invite several community partners to join them.  These included the local chapter of the American Red Cross, local Salvation Army Corps, the county Department of Emergency Services, the new Regional Volunteer Center, the County Animal Response Team (CART), and others, including the VOAD.  The partnership was hugely beneficial, leveraging the resources and talents of all participants for the exercise.  The local health department was able to obtain the kit materials and handle promotional activities such as a local commercial featuring the county executive, radio ads, local news paper mentions, and posters for print and e-mail distribution.  They also handled the on-line registration for the event.  The assisting agencies provided their expertise and knowledge of various preparedness areas, providing speakers and print materials for the event.  Our area is very culturally diverse and the assisting agencies were able to provide the print materials in a variety of languages, and some agencies provided much needed services of interpretation.

Two days before the event registration reached 300 – the cut off based on the kit materials we had available.  I’m confident that, had we the materials, we could have accepted registrations upward of 400 or even 450.  Clearly this was an indicator of an interested community and the need to do this again!

The event itself went very well, with even the host facility – who has a catering service – providing refreshments and snacks for both staff and attendees.  The schedule was tight… with only about 20 minutes being given per group to go through the POD.  Groups averaged between 15 and 20 people, and a new group was ushered in every 10 minutes (when people pre-registered for the event they chose a time slot).  There were some late comers, early arrivals, and a few walks in – all of which were accommodated with a bit of coordination.  We had parking attendants ensuring a good flow of traffic, sign in staff ensuring that people were getting in, and other staff to help folks all along the way through the POD.

Comments made by people as they went through, along with the brief surveys they took at the end, were all quite positive.  The event had local media exposure, with the county executive and health department director being interviewed, as well as some attendees.  The attendees received information on the importance of preparedness, local hazards and information, how to be alerted in the event of an emergency, information on special family needs, and, of course, the kit itself.

Many health departments conduct POD exercises by cycling volunteers through and handing out candy or breath mints – which is fine if you don’t have much funding – it still accomplishes the goal of the exercise.  Using a POD to conduct flu clinics is common practice and very functional.  This idea, though, was creative and provided an excellent opportunity to give something back to the community.  It increased awareness of members of the community and helped them to be better prepared.  Obviously we hope they will all tell their friends and family about what they learned.  We know that any future events like this would be very successful.  I absolutely encourage others to something like this – it’s a true best practice.

Tim Riecker