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Rethinking ESF 4 for COVID-19

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ESF 4 is firefighting activities. ESF 8 is Public Health and Medical Services. Depending on your configuration of the Emergency Medical Services Delivery, such as fire-based EMS, the EMS portion of your pandemic may be led by ESF 4 or ESF 8. Many may argue that it should be led by ESF 8 regardless of configuration, and these purest may be correct, but think about the amount of activity in ESF 8 currently. Moving EMS to ESF 4 will spread the load and ensure that many systems, even FDNY this week, have a heavy fire department presence in EMS. This can also be seen that the United States Fire Administration was tasked with EMS management development a number of years ago.

Typical Disaster Thinning for ESF 4

Typically, ESF 4 would support a single disaster site and help coordinate resources to respond to the disaster site and help with the planning related to the disaster site. This would involve determining needs for the disaster site and developing a list of resources to help mitigate the disaster. The ESF 4 representative would determine resources that are in neighboring jurisdiction and work with other areas of the state to satisfy Intrastate Mutua Aid Compact (IMAC) resource requests and work with the state emergency agency to develop EMAC requests if the IMAC resources were not enough

Pandemic Rethinking

In our current pandemic, we have a different issue; there is no single disaster site and there are no resources coming. The planning section chief should assign one a person to research other areas of the country that have lived through the patient surge to find what they are doing and what they wished they had instituted earlier. One of the common themes that I have noted that keeps emerging is the movement to an area command system that takes advantage of a regional approach to response.

Recognizing that we need to work at a regional level and recognizing that the pandemic does not spare EMS and firefighters from contracting the virus, regional leaders should set out to develop a new way of thinking and operation of ESF 4. Planning for around a 50% reduction in fire and EMS workers based off of some of the statistic of 40% of the population contracting COVID-19 and areas in Seattle that found this to be the case in their department, would be prevalent. Because of this reduction, one should recognize significant staffing shortages in terms of number of vehicles staffed. Because of this staffing issue, consider developing a GIS mapping and survey to allow the ESF 4 position to see the staffing and availability of each organization to offer EMS and fire mutual aid. Under normal staffing, most areas have a great mutual and automatic aid system that allows departments to have the needed resources seamlessly.

The next activity that leaders should accomplish is to be able to see the call volume and unit statuses in the numerous dispatch centers. This allows the global perspective of the area covered by the ESF position. While some departments may be large enough to have all of the resources under one dispatch, many areas of the country have numerous dispatching centers in a region. If this is the case, the ESF 4 will need the ability to see into the various system. This can be challenging depending on the number of centers and the number of software solutions maintained by the different centers.

Functions of the ESF 4

Due to the varying degree of ability to offer mutual aid, coupled with increased call volume, and decreased personnel to staff the apparatus, the ESF 4 position needs to work with the agencies in the region to maximize resources. In learning from other areas of the country, the surge happens more in urbanized areas and less in the rural areas. This is doe to the fact that social distancing has been occurring in rural areas well before COVID-19. As one person put it, “it’s called country living, we weren’t next to anyone by design prior”. While many of these organizations are volunteer in nature due to the decreased tax base, many are willing to help and try to put together staffing schedules to help make responses during the surge. Additionally, staffing reductions will likely not occur in an even fashion, thus movement of urban and suburban resources by the shift may need to occur.

We have stated that, “We are all in this together” and we will need a strong regional presence and leadership to help all of us get through this.

Dr. 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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