By Heather R. Cotter, Executive Director
The International Public Safety Association reached out to a few member to get their perspectives on emerging lessons learned and considerations related to the COVID-19 pandemic specific to continuity of operations, safety and mental health. The article contributors include:
- Emma Poon, Chief, Regional and Stakeholder Branch, National Continuity Programs, U.S. DHS, FEMA
- George Steiner, Lieutenant, Elgin (Illinois) Fire Department, IPSA Board Member, IPSA RTF Committee Chair, IPSA Secretary
- Nicholas Greco, M.S., B.C.E.T.S., C.A.T.S.M., F.A.A.E.T.S., IPSA Mental Health & Wellness Committee Chair
Q: What are you seeing related to the COVID-19 pandemic, specific to COOP, safety and/or mental health?
Poon: As organizations at all levels are finding their key resources are limited and personnel may be unavailable due to the COVID-19 pandemic, now is the time for everyone to review and reassess their essential functions so that the resources that are available can be applied in efforts that will be most beneficial to your organization.
FEMA has various tools to support continuity-related planning to include the Business Process Analysis and Business Impact Analysis User Guide. This guide supports the development, review and validation of essential functions by taking you through the steps of conducting a Business Process Analysis and Business Impact Analysis. This and other useful continuity-related tools and information can be accessed in the FEMA Continuity Resource Toolkit.
FEMA also have online trainings through the Emergency Management Institute, and the most relevant ones now are:
An Introduction to Continuity of Operations: IS-1300
Introduction to Continuity of Operations Planning for Pandemic Influenzas: IS-0520
And the Continuity Guidance Circular is also available in the Resource Toolkit as our foundational document that has basically outlined how much of national resilience depends upon everyone in the whole community having continuity plans. Continuity isn’t limited to government or any specific sector.
Steiner: COVID-19 is requiring us to rethink our normal response to our routine emergencies. Protect yourself and your personnel right away as part of your initial scene safety. It is important to remember that people can be asymptomatic and still be contagious. Even people who are showing symptoms may not be forthcoming with that information about their symptoms in fear of being labeled (stigmatized) or denied entry into a place.
We are treating runs as though the patient has COVID-19 by protecting ourselves right away wearing surgical masks, eye protection, gloves and other PPE as needed. We are also placing masks on all our patients to provide an additional level of protection. We are sending one medic in to evaluate the patient and determine the proper level of PPE and care. We are even trying to get the patients to meet us at the front door, lobby or outside when possible to help limit the potential exposures.
Greco: The mental health field is seeing resiliency, strength and courage through this difficult time. We continue to see first responders struggling with existing stress that is being compounded by this crisis.
Q: What else should organizations be thinking about and addressing?
Greco: We need to start looking at physical and mental wellness during and after this crisis. And not just in our first responders, but for our doctors, nurses and other medical professionals. I am concerned about the rates of acute stress disorder and PTSD. I would ask that organizations begin to look at wellness efforts now and plan for taking care of their people after this event. This is critical to help mitigate burnout, compassion fatigue and PTSD.
As Chair of the IPSA’s Mental Health & Wellness Committee, I am proud to serve with a terrific group of first responders and medical and mental health professionals. IPSA has several resources available on their website including infographics depression, PTSD, suicide, family and officer wellness. I encourage agencies and individuals to download and distribute these free resources.
Steiner: The well-being and mental health of your personnel and their families during this difficult time needs to be near the top of every leader’s mind. Plus, the economic impact the COVID-19 pandemic is having on both the public and private sectors; many individuals and companies are experiencing financial stress. It is going to be a long road to recovery.
Poon: This event is really highlighting how important it is to have good continuity plans in place. Even though we are not activating plans in the traditional sense, or relocating operations, we are using the strategies and capabilities we have developed over the years to maintain functions and services. We need to focus on four continuity planning factors:
- Identifying essential personnel based on identified essential functions of an organization (the Business Process Analysis and Business Impact Analysis User Guide referenced above).
- Knowing who is essential and how can help planners understand who must be where to make sure functions and services happen.
- In the case of a pandemic, this information can be used to identify who can stay home to telework and who must be in the office to perform functions.
- As more people get impacted, there will be a “graceful degradation” of functions that can be supported, but because continuity planning has already identified essential functions, all personnel can be reallocated or reassigned to perform tasks for the essential functions vs normal functions.
- Orders of succession and delegations of authority helps mitigate impacts if/when leadership could be impacted by an incident.
- FEMA recommends at least three deep, with at least one out of the area.
- Continuity of operations always gets confused with “Relocation of Operations.” Not all incidents involve relocation or should relocate. In a pandemic scenario, relocating everyone to another location together is not going to mitigate the impacts.
- Continuity is function specific not location specific. However, continuity alternate sites and capabilities can be used in different ways. People that must be in a physical location to do their tasks, can be dispersed to all of the locations an organization has at its disposal, whether it’s the primary site, telework or alternate sites.
- Having alternate means of communication is critical as we are seeing with the issues with the conference bridges. It is not always about the continuity satellite phones or classified gadgets.
- The IT infrastructure to be able support dispersed operations, the ability to access files, and essential records.
The IPSA will continue to reach out to its stakeholders during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. We promise to continue to share the information we receive from our multidiscipline network so we can all learn from one another. Afterall, our vision is for a stronger, more integrated public safety community capable of an effective joint response to all public safety incidents. Together we are stronger.
IPSA COVID-19 Webpage
IPSA Mental Health Infographics
IPSA FEMA COOP Webinar Recording
IPSA Webinar Recording: Burnout - Staying Out of the Red Zone
10 tips for emergency responders, healthcare providers for managing stress during the COVID-19 crisis