AMU Emergency Management Opinion Public Safety

COVID-19: Will This Be the Public Health’s 9/11?

By Randall Hanifen
Columnist, EDM Digest

Prior to 9/11, many fire departments were very independent. Many established and administered command of a scene differently. We had a very disparate mutual aid system that labeled vehicles and people differently. It was if there were thousands of different ways to response to fires and emergencies. After 9/11, we were forced to implement NIMS (if you wanted grant money), FEMA created a resource Typing List, and mutual aid, as well as EMAC were all significantly enhanced. We learned that we could not all operate independently, but instead needed federalized standards that moved to the state and local level.

Viewing many fire department operations related to the pandemic showed that many used the ICS planning process and documents to manage the potential or realized event within their communities. All spoke the same language, many worked together to create their plans, and all spoke the same language. The changes that occurred from 9/11 worked. We captured our turning point.

This perspective of the public health system is purely an outsider’s look. It is also based on opinion. All of the people in each of the positions, I believe are doing what they feel are best and my analysis is of a broken system. However, as a user of the system, sometimes in a very intricate way, these observations will hopefully be addressed, and public health can have it’s 9/11.

Disparate Systems and Answers

Departments I am familiar with worked with the public health departments to make determination on employee return to work and testing only to find that no common answer was provided. To complicate matters, the employees were governed by the health department of where they live, which if a cluster of employees need examined, up to four different answers were attained based on the number of health departments. To complicate the issue, you could receive varying issues within each health department. This exponential amount of answers was only the first level. Next, you needed to look to the state for their executive orders and their rulings, which being in a tri-state area added complexity.

Finally, you needed to look at the CDC to determine how all of these rulings compared to the advice of the CDC. This often mimicked a small research project, coupled with a legal briefing, as not only did the decisions revolve around health, but they also included employment law that had many new provisions, which of course had many exemptions. The best part of their complex environment was the need to make these decisions in a very quick timeline, as we were trying to limit any further spread, while trying to continue to provide service the community needed more than ever.

Needed Changes from an Outsider’s Perspective

While America is based on the premise of local control, it becomes more important in these types of large-scale events to have more federalized control and direction. I know that some will indicate that you can not trust the federal government and all of their decisions are political. I would argue that this happens at every level. We can see this play out at the state level and again at the local level and this is not the first event that has been divided on political lines.

However, we, as citizens, must demand scientific or fact-based decision and some people must live with decisions that do not agree with their opinion. While 9/11 had some civil rights issues, I have noted that much of this pandemic is driven on civil rights between being told what to do and how to live your life versus the rights of people not to be subjected to the virus. Based on the advent of social media and the media being in the entertainment branch of their companies, we will not see this issue deplete soon. Despite all of this political background, it is in the interest of the users, whom need to make quality decisions to be able to have one authority of information that is recognized and used all the way to the local level.

Dr. Randall Hanifen serves as a shift commander at a medium-sized suburban fire department in the northern part of the Cincinnati area. Randall is the CEO/principal consultant of an emergency services consulting firm, providing analysis and solutions related to organizational structuring of fire and EMS organizations. He is the chairperson and operations manager for a county technical rescue team. From a state and national perspective, he serves as a taskforce leader for one of FEMA's urban search and rescue teams, which responds to presidential declared disasters. From an academic standpoint, Randall has a bachelor’s degree in fire administration, a master’s degree in executive fire service leadership, and a doctoral degree in business administration with a specialization in homeland security. He is the associate author of “Disaster Planning and Control” (Penwell, 2009), which provides first responders with guidance through all types of disasters.

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