Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Challenge of Emergency Preparedness

One of my new professional challenges is learning everything I can about emergency preparedness. I am now, in effect, responsible for emergency preparedness planning for my entire town, thus I am confronting the steep learning curve that that responsibility engenders.

From what I can gather, emergency preparedness operates on several levels, each of which offers its own set of challenges:

For individuals and families, being prepared for emergencies entails family disaster plans, food, water, communication devices such as hand-cranked or battery-operated radios, first aid, flashlights and other equipment, sanitation and hygiene concerns, pets, important family papers, bedding, medications, clothing, as well as the needs of children, the elderly, and the disabled. For a comprehensive list of what a household Basic Emergency Kit should contain, click here.

For neighborhoods, emergency preparedness means identifying vulnerable neighbors, making plans for their care in the event of an emergency, and appointing individuals or groups of individuals to share responsibility for those identified members of the community.

On the municipal level, preparations for disasters, severe weather, terrorism, power outages and public health emergencies obviously encompass the individuals, families and neighborhoods which make up a municipality. However, municipal emergency preparedness also takes into account the need to provide emergency shelter, mass dispensation of medications of vaccinations in the case of epidemics or pandemics, as well as support for potentially overwhelmed first responders.

While the current wave of emergency preparedness was indeed galvanized by the terrorist attacks of 2001, the United States and other countries have seen how varying levels of preparedness on the local, state, and federal level can fail or succeed in the face of natural disasters. Despite the efforts of many, it is painfully clear that the federal response to Hurricane Katrina caused enormous (and altogether preventable) suffering on the part of residents of the American Gulf Coast. The Bush Administration and FEMA failed miserably in their collective response to Katrina, and many people died unnecessarily as a result of systemic problems and governmental hubris.

Although some may still fear terrorist attacks in the form of biological weapons and bombings on American soil, I feel that it is far more likely that our level of preparedness for the unexpected will be tested in the form of natural disasters (hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and earthquakes) and outbreaks of disease (such as pandemic influenza). The recent ice storms in Massachusetts and wild fires in California are two examples of how coordinated efforts on the part of local, state and federal entities are crucial to disaster response, rescue and recovery.

Now, my personal task is to take the helm of my local branch of the Medical Reserve Corps, connect with local, regional and state emergency preparedness officials, and put together a comprehensive preparedness plan for our town of approximately 40,000 residents. Steep learning curve is right, and I will certainly be blogging about my progress as I move forward with this and my other new public health duties, so please stay tuned.
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