As awareness and media coverage of the spread of the coronavirus, officially named 2019 Novel Coronavirus or COVID-19, grows, so does apprehension. As we face increasing concerns over the risk presented by the coronavirus – both founded and unfounded – leaders of public safety organizations need to be prepared to address potential complex challenges in delivering their services.

The spread of the virus has been significant. On January 31, 2020, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex M. Azar II declared a public health emergency (PHE) for the U.S. to aid the nation’s healthcare community. So, what does this mean for public safety responders?

Your preparation and planning should be commensurate with the risk. The growing concern and presence of the coronavirus is a good reason to validate your protocols and strategies for pandemic incidents. This is not a test – or it may be – and that is part of the challenge. With SARS, the U.S. was not significantly impacted. However, prudent review and preparation is called for given the spread of the virus to date and its potential impact.

Protection for your public safety agency and the community it serves comes in the form of good policy, validated practices and open communication. Unique issues arise as part of a potential pandemic.

  • Are your protocols up to date?
  • What are your prevention practices?
  • Who are your health partners?
  • What are their policies and practices as to where will they locate and respond in the event of an outbreak?
  • What happens if an outbreak occurs in your jurisdiction and your personnel are not available to respond?
  • What happens if a quarantine order is issued in your jurisdiction?

Review of your policies and table-top exercises will help you keep your agency prepared if the virus affects your service community. Most agencies have protocols and work with local emergency management agencies in addressing a comprehensive approach to hazards. Reviewing your existing protocols and operational and staffing plans in light of a potential disease outbreak is a good first step to being prepared. Early review helps to identify pressure points, gaps and coordination requirements – ahead of a potential crisis.

In 2007, the Police Executive Research Forum published “Police Planning for an Influenza Pandemic: Case Studies and Recommendations from the Field.” Though from over a decade ago, it contains relevant advice for today’s law enforcement executives. Key to successful public safety services is early review and engagement on potential issues.

Staffing

In the event of a significant outbreak or pandemic, knowing who can supplement your staff is critical. Review and prepare your staffing plans for the chance of a mass staff outage. Mutual aid and other such programs are relied upon to help agencies meet basic needs. Identifying alternative work schedules and ensuring Memoranda of Agreement regarding mutual aid are updated and effective will help ease your planning for such events.

Agencies also need to account for staff outages due to periphery impacts like temporary school closings.  Identifying challenges and solutions early on is critical for a successful public safety response to any such incident.

Quarantine and Other Public Health Powers

Most law enforcement agencies are not well versed in public health laws and powers. Local quarantine powers are not consistent and not always granted to local public safety agencies.

  • When was the last time your local health laws were reviewed?
  • How are such powers enacted and under what authority?
  • What is the lawful authority of your personnel in the event of a quarantine order?
  • How will it be enforced?
  • What is the plan for violations?
  • What are the plans and strategies for seeking self-isolation in lieu of quarantine?

Planning with your local public health entities now will allow for informed action in the event of a significant outbreak.

Communication

What is needed to address pandemic and outbreak concerns and planning is information that is clear, concise and helpful. You, your officers and your community are informed primarily through the media. Keep updated regarding the disease, its spread and the factors unique to your community – including whether certain populations are at risk and whether there is a significant outbreak. Ensure that you are receiving information from your public health community and the experts within the field. Initiate early contact and discuss the issues and concern.

This information is key not only for planning purposes but for assurance to the people who answer the calls for assistance from police officers, firefighters and other emergency response personnel. Your internal communication practices should ensure routine communication from informed leadership.

Should an outbreak occur in your community, ensuring that the public health and public safety communication protocols are clear and consistent will help minimize panic and disinformation. Identifying roles and responsibilities now will help keep your community informed should such an outbreak occur. As media coverage and information continues to grow or be distorted, a local government that is engaged, coordinated and capable through ongoing communication will help alleviate concerns. Establishing your communication strategies ahead of a potential outbreak, and then implementing them during one, should it come to that, will help alleviate panic and concern.

Plan and prepare now for the potential impact of a significant outbreak, including working through your public health and emergency planning partners to ensure a comprehensive and adaptable plan – one focused on defined roles, strong communication and agile response. Work now to establish framework responses that will not go to waste – even if this outbreak is rapidly contained.

Issues regarding public health and pandemic outbreaks are growing and preparation provides a foundation for future events and their contingencies.

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