In public safety we learn from every incident we deal with. Some incidents bring about more change than others. This change comes not just from lessons learned, but an effort to apply change based upon those lessons. In recent history, we’ve seen significant changes in emergency management practice come from disasters like the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina, with many of the changes so significant that they are actually codified and have led to new doctrine and new practices at the highest levels. What changes can we expect from the Coronavirus pandemic?
Of course, it’s difficult to predict the future. We’re also still in the middle of this, so my thoughts may change a month or two into the future. Any speculation will begin with idealism, but this must be balanced with pragmatism. Given that, the items I discuss here are perhaps more along the lines of changes I would like to see which I think have a decent chance of actually happening.
- Legislation. Similar to the aforementioned major disasters, this too will spawn legislation from which doctrine and programs will be derived. We are always hopeful that it’s not politicians who pen the actual legislation, but subject matter experts and visionaries with no political agendas other than advancing public health preparedness and related matters.
- More public health resources. This one, I think, is pretty obvious. We need more resources to support public health preparedness, prevention, and detection efforts. Of course, this begins with funding which will typically be spawned from the legislation mentioned previous. Public health preparedness is an investment, though like most preparedness efforts, it’s an investment that will dwindle over time if it’s not properly maintained and advanced to address emerging threats and best practices. Funding must address needs, programs to address those needs, and the resources to implement those programs.
- Further integration of public health into emergency management. Emergency management is a team sport. Regardless of the hazard or the primary agencies involved, disasters impact everyone and many organizations and practices are stakeholders in its resolution and can contribute resources to support the resolution of primary impacts and cascading effects. Despite some gains following 9/11, public health preparedness has still been treated like an acquaintance from another neighborhood. The legislation, doctrine, programs, and resources that we see MUST support an integrated and comprehensive response. No longer can we allow public health to be such an unfamiliar entity to the rest of the emergency management community (to be clear – the fault to date lies with everyone).
- Improved emergency management preparedness. Pulling back to look at emergency management as a whole, we have certainly identified gaps in preparedness comprehensively. Plans that were lacking or didn’t exist at all. Equipment and systems that were lacking or didn’t exist at all. People who didn’t know what to do. Organizations that weren’t flexible or responsible enough. Processes that took too long. Poor assumptions on what impacts would be. We can and must do better.
- An increase in operational continuity preparedness. We’ve been preaching continuity of operations/government for decades, yet so few have listened. The Coronavirus pandemic has shown us so many organizations jumping through their asses as they figure it all out for the first time. By necessity they have figured it out, some better than others. My hope here is that they learned from their experience and will embrace the concepts of operational continuity and identify a need to leverage what they have learned and use that as a basis for planning, training, exercises, and other preparedness efforts to support future continuity events.
- Further expansion of understanding of community lifelines and interdependencies of critical infrastructure. This pandemic gave us real world demonstrations of how connected we are, how vulnerable some of our critical infrastructure is, and what metrics (essential elements of information) we should be monitoring when a disaster strikes. I expect we will see some updated documents from DHS and FEMA addressing much of this.
- More/better public-private partnerships. The private sector stepped up in this disaster more than they previously ever had. Sure, some mistakes were made, but the private sector has been incredibly responsive and they continue to do so. They have supported their communities, customers, and governments to address needs they identified independently as well as responding to requests from government. They changed production. Increased capacity. Distributed crisis messages. Changed operations to address safety matters. Some were stretched to capacity, despite having to change their business models. Many companies have also been providing free or discounted products to organizations, professionals, and the public. We need to continue seeing this kind of awareness and responsiveness. I also don’t want to dismiss those businesses, and their employees, that took a severe financial hit. Economic stabilization will be a big issue to address in recovery from this disaster, and I’m hopeful that our collective efforts can help mitigate this in the future.
- An improved preparedness mindset for individuals and families. Despite the panic buying we saw, much of the public has finally seemed to grasp the preparedness messaging we have been pushing out for decades. These are lessons I hope they don’t forget. Emergency management, collectively, absolutely must capitalize on the shared experience of the public to encourage (proper) preparedness efforts moving forward and to keep it regularly in their minds.
In all, we want to see lasting changes – a new normal, not just knee-jerk reactions or short-lived programs, that will see us eventually sliding backwards. I’m sure I’ll add more to this list as time goes on, but these are the big items that I am confident can and (hopefully) will happen. I’m interested in your take on these and what you might add to the list.
Be smart, stay safe, stay healthy, and be good to each other.
© 2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP