Springtime is practically upon us. Trees are budding, asparagus is growing (yes, I mentioned asparagus), birds are chirping, and snow is melting. And it’s raining. Some people call it spring, others call it the first flood season of the year. Flooding isn’t the only hazard we face right now. It’s still early enough for the threat of snow and ice storms, and we’ve already seen tornado activity in the US. Oh, and by the way, we’re dealing with a pandemic. EDIT: In the midst of writing this post and also exchanging emails re Coronavirus with a client in Utah, he exclaimed in one of his responses that a 5.7 earthquake had just struck with an epicenter just outside Salt Lake City. As one of my old bosses used to say, you can’t make this stuff up.
So often we are used to dealing with one disaster at a time. Yes, sometimes we get hit with a one-two punch, or other times the same incident, such as a hurricane, persists, but these are typically localized, not a nation-wide concern, much less global. When our resources are already strained from dealing with Coronavirus, it can be a challenge to respond to another significant incident, especially when there is little mutual aid to be had. I often think back to an example I use back from my days in EMS, and that’s the multi-trauma patient. Most EMS instructors, following the standard curriculum, will teach you how to treat lacerations, fractures, burns, and the like. But rarely do we learn about how to deal with those things when they all happen at once. I remember back when I was a young pup EMT, my first multi-trauma patient was a victim of a motor vehicle accident (as it probably was for most EMTs). I recall having a brief moment of panic because that’s not what we were taught to handle. My brain quickly reset, and I went back to my ABCs, assessing and stabilizing the patient in priority order.
Another personal example I have is the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 on November 12, 2001 – two months and one day after 9/11. The plane crashed in Queens borough of New York City as the result of a critical structural failure. 260 souls on board, plus 5 on the ground died. This occurred in the midst of the response to one of the most impactful disasters in US history. In a way we ‘lucked out’ that the incident occurred in New York City. On a normal day, the City of New York can leverage more resources in a response than some US states and even nations. November 2001 was anything but ‘normal’ with a massive amount of additional resources still rotating into the City to support 9/11 activities. While at this point, two months following 9/11, things were reasonably stable in and around ground zero, the crash of Flight 587 still required a significant change in operations. From my recollection, in the State EOC in Albany, we actually split some of our staff for a brief period of time (within the same chain of command), with some staying focused on 9/11 activity while others were focused on the crash. We didn’t create a new organization, but there were people in Operations and Planning committed specifically to monitoring and supporting the new incident. Like a Venn diagram, there were some different needs in the initial response with some overlapping needs between the two incidents. As the two circles moved closer together, creating more overlap, we re-integrated our staff to track and support both incidents collectively. I recall the reintegration occurring after only a few operational periods.
So what to do when an incident occurs during our current pandemic? There are a few concerns, some related to incident management, others related to our tactical responses and humanitarian needs. While our general response times are likely to be improved, many resources are already strained. We are likely in an operational continuity mode already, currently working with or ready to work with fewer staff as Coronavirus impacts our people and their families. It’s incredibly important to be rotating your emergency staff, keeping people as rested as possible. We can also leverage the lead agency status that is presently at play in most jurisdictions, with public health having the lead, and emergency management agencies and others supporting them. If something occurs other than a second public health event, the emergency management agency may be able to pivot to be the lead coordinating agency for the new incident while still supporting public health. (Of course, I say this fully recognizing that the vast majority of emergency management offices are one-person shops.) If you are able to split off some staff within your Coronavirus organization (really speaking in terms of your EOC) similar to my Flight 587 example, that may be a workable strategy. Another strategy could be the reverse of that, where most of your organization is focused on the new incident, since that is in its critical early stages, leaving a few other staff to continue supporting Coronavirus needs. I generally wouldn’t consider creating parallel organizations as most jurisdictions simply don’t have the capacity for that, plus EOCs are intended to be able to support multiple incidents. The splitting off of staff is generally only for the early response to ensure that we are gathering information and providing the support that is needed. We can still leverage the organization as a whole (you probably don’t have a need to dedicate anyone in Logistics or Finance specifically to the new incident, though expenses should be tracked separately), and the chain of command still remains intact. Your planning process, likewise, should accommodate both incidents. Depending on the scope of the new incident, certain subject matter experts may need to be brought in to address specific response and disaster recovery needs for the new incident. Overall, flexibility is key. I’ll also say that all this can be done while still adhering to organization tenants of ICS (even if your EOC doesn’t purely use ICS).
From a more tactical perspective, the main concerns are staffing and safety. Staffing, as mentioned before, may be a challenge as we progress through the most infectious stages of this pandemic. Your continuity plans must absolutely address this. I mention safety not only in regard to whatever hazards the new incident brings about, but also the continued safety measures we need to maintain for Coronavirus. The most prominent of these safety measures are those involving an expanded circle of exposures for responders and the public; dealing with large numbers of victims, perhaps displaced from a building who may need shelter and other care. Mass care is a big concern. Certainly, for smaller numbers of victims, hotels may be more appropriate than a shelter, but we know that we need to prepare for a credible worst-case scenario. How?
- We must ensure that our responders, VOAD, and social services agencies are prepared to address needs.
- With so many facilities being closed, we need to ensure that we still have access to identified shelters and the people and resources necessary to support them.
- Many of the VOAD organizations and social services agencies may have limited operations due to Coronavirus, with staff working from home. Do they have the resources and equipment at-hand to support a response or do they need to retrieve these from their offices?
- Do they have an ability to recall staff?
- Is there any change in their capability and capacity?
- Are the supply chains we use for shelter food and supplies still viable?
- What needs to be done to support social distancing and limit exposure within a shelter environment?
- How will you address isolation needs for those who may have been exposed or are symptomatic?
- Are their activation and notification procedures impacted by Coronavirus?
Now is the time to convene your VOAD and social services agencies (by tele/video conference, of course) to answer these questions and ensure that a written plan (an amendment to your standing sheltering/human needs plan) is developed and circulated for common understanding.
Regardless of the circumstances, we cannot allow ourselves to become so focused on Coronavirus that we forsake the challenges we would face should another major incident strike, the changes to our capability and capacity, and the continued preparedness we need to maintain. Remember, preparedness doesn’t stop simply because we are in the midst of a disaster. I’ll also mention that I’m certainly not the first to consider this issue. Over the past few days, several people, including Ralph Fisk and Dr. Samantha Montano have posted their concerns about our ability to respond to other disasters in the midst of the Coronavirus response and impacts. It’s something that shouldn’t just be on our minds, it’s something we need to be prepared for. Developing a contingency plan for your EOC operations and other related support is something that should absolutely be taking place sooner rather than later.
I’m sure I didn’t cover all possibilities or considerations on this topic (I rarely do on any topic), but my intent is to get your mental juices flowing and to plant some ideas. Please be sure to share any ideas or considerations you have in your contingency preparedness.
Be smart, stay safe, stay healthy, and be good to each other.
© 2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP