All disasters are innately different, so no two responses can be identical. If no two responses are identical, then no single plan can be perfect for any specific disaster. And that is okay. Successful disaster management is about implementing the most relevant plan, finding the most reliable information available, and making the best decisions based on that information and accessible resources. This August edition of the DomPrep Journal presents four imperfect yet critical components of disaster response: models, disaster case management, contact tracing, and citizen response.
While much of the news media has been focused on the coronavirus pandemic, violent incidents continue to occur throughout the United States. The shutdown of sporting events, schools, concerts, and other large events has led to an overall decrease in active shooter incidents. In fact, March 2020 was the first March without a school shooting since 2002.
An important aspect of emergency preparedness is a robust exercise program designed with the vital purpose of identifying gaps, updating plans, and strengthening emergency response. Exercises bring together key stakeholders to help build collaborative relationships that pay huge dividends when the real emergency arises. Simply understanding other agency protocols and operational capabilities are valuable lessons learned from most exercises. However, exercises go beyond the checklists, plans, and policies. They offer the opportunity to get to know other people and solidify teams.
Many professions are steeped in tradition, including those in emergency preparedness and response organizations. In these well-established environments, when asked to make a change to traditional practices, the response is sometimes simply, “No, this is how we’ve always done it.” Such thinking can leave communities underprepared for new, emerging, or evolving threats. What worked well 5, 10, or 20 years ago may have lost its effectiveness as times and conditions have changed or there may simply be more options available that have not been considered because of tradition.
The concept of a whole community approach has been recommended for years. However, it has perhaps not been more important than it is today. Compounding events, or disasters within disasters, are why emergency planners stress the importance of planning for the worst but hoping for the best. Well, the time to implement these plans is now. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic does not appear to be ending anytime soon. However, life must go on. “Normal” seasonal disasters like wildfires, hurricanes, earthquakes, and floods will not wait for communities to replenish supplies, reallocate resources, and hire more staff. Human-caused threats may escalate as bad actors take advantage of physical and technological vulnerabilities that the pandemic exposes. The common primary, secondary, and tertiary effects of smaller threats worsen when compounded with the pandemic response.
One of the biggest challenges that emergency preparedness professionals face is how to balance the choices they make. Mitigating every risk is not realistic, but ignoring threats is reprehensible. Lessons learned from any disaster exposes the successes and failures of those tasked with keeping their communities safe. Some decisions have immediate impact, whereas the consequences of other decisions may not be seen until sometime in the future. In both cases, people are watching and decision makers will be held accountable.
The COVID-19 pandemic takes its toll in terms of human lives and global economic consequences. Social distancing has proven to be the most promising strategy against emerging viruses without borders, but the heavy economic damage that follows puts in question the possibility of its continuation. In fact, weighing the two elements raises an important debate: What is the acceptable loss in order to win this battle?
News agencies often use the term “unprecedented” when referring to COVID-19 and other recent disasters and events. Unprecedented refers to something that was not known or experienced before. However, it is often used synonymously with the word “unexpected.” Of course, COVID-19 did not exist before 2019, Hurricane Sandy did not exist before 2012, the U.S. was not attacked by terrorists on the scale of 9/11 before 2001, and so on.
Similar to pandemic preparedness, the U.S. government is not doing enough to prepare for failure of municipal water systems when the electric grid goes down. Government programs do not address loss of law and order or cessation of food production and delivery services. Elected and appointed officials often downplay the number of deaths to be expected and the lack of preventative measures. They also do not acknowledge people taking advantage of stresses on law enforcement to loot and maraud in the event of a collapse. Swift action is needed now to mitigate potential consequences of a future triggered collapse.
In contrast to experts’ estimates of millions of deaths, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) pandemic influenza planning scenario refers to just 87,000 casualties – not much more than a bad seasonal flu. This version of the scenario seen in public forums has planning assumptions on virus lethality, worker absenteeism, and maintenance of law and order that are irresponsibly optimistic. When planning for security, it is better to err on the side of worst-case scenarios. The DHS uses 15 National Planning Scenarios. Scenario 3 is “Biological Disease Outbreak – Pandemic Influenza,” and Scenario 4 is “Biological Attack – Pneumonic Plague.”