Pandemic prep

A monkey smuggled into the United States carries a deadly secret – a fatal disease that kills within 24 hours and can be passed from animal to human. Within the span of a few days, this monkey infects and kills hundreds and the disease spreads faster than Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) epidemiologists can find a means to treat it. Widespread public hysteria ensues as officials try to quarantine infected individuals and isolate the outbreak to the communities where it has spread.

While this scenario is actually ripped from the 1995 movie “Outbreak,” it raises some very real concerns about law enforcement’s role in public health emergencies.

In the aftermath of H1N1, the swine flu outbreak that fortunately never became as bad as predicted, some officials worry the onus to plan for pandemic may recede. But this could be a mistake. As Inspector Alain Bernard of the Ottowa Police Service emphasizes, “It is not a question of if [a pandemic will occur], it’s a question of when.” Supporting this is the fact that there were three major flu pandemics in the last century, the least of which caused 34,000 deaths in the United States alone.

Clearly preparation is needed but what should this planning include? Isn’t all-hazards planning enough?

The simple answer is no. While elements of existing hazard plans may provide guidance, a business continuity plan that addresses a pandemic’s specific concerns is also necessary.

Most existing hazard plans address physical emergencies, such as tornadoes, earthquakes and floods, or finite emergencies, such as active shooter situations. But a pandemic carries a few key differences. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a pandemic influenza event occurs when “a novel influenza virus emerges that can infect and be efficiently transmitted among individuals because of a lack of pre-existing immunity in the population.” This illness quickly spreads and may continue to impact communities for many, many months.

The Department of Health and Human Services predicts a major public health emergency would impact law enforcement in the following ways:

n  Outbreaks occurring at the same time in communities across the United States would impair law enforcement’s ability to aid their neighbors in a crisis.

n  Delays or shortages in vaccines or antiviral drugs may foster public hysteria that requires law enforcement intervention.

n  Sickness among officers and their families may contribute to staffing shortages among the ranks.

The best way to address these concerns is to prepare for them in advance, according to Bernard. “Issues need to be resolved prior to an actual incident,” he says. “There are a whole slew of organizations without plans in place, who will fly by the seat of their pants during a pandemic, but developing these plans is a necessary evil. The public needs to be assured that you have things well in hand.”


Find your partner, dosey do

In 2004, Ottawa city officials developed an interagency pandemic plan without law enforcement input. When officials ran the resulting document by police, there were portions that needed tweaking.

“You can’t work in isolation,” stresses Bernard, noting all aspects of public safety, from police and fire to emergency health, public health and hospital staff, need to work together when hammering out pandemic business continuity plans.

North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department knows this full well; this area faces some unusual circumstances. The second largest bank operates here as do two nuclear power stations. Professional sporting venues, the NASCAR Hall of Fame and Charlotte Motor Speedway attract 25,000 to 300,000 people to the area at a time. A CDC Strategic National Stockpile, storing large quantities of medicine and medical supplies for public health emergencies, is also located here. These factors create unique concerns for the community and require all public safety entities to plan for pandemic together rather than operate in a vacuum.

Here, law enforcement officials meet bimonthly with firefighters, medical staff, public health, medical professionals and hospital administrators to talk out issues and make sure they’re always on the same page. These are the types of relationships law enforcement needs to foster before any real planning can occur, says Maj. Dale Greene, special operations commander for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg PD.

“If you are not working with your fire department, medical staff, public health and hospitals – if you don’t have solid relationships with these groups – you are destined for failure,” he says.

Virginia’s Fairfax County Police Department nurtured relationships by first learning how each public safety entity (health care included) operates. At the onset of planning, firefighters attended police roll calls, public health officials went on ride-a-longs, police officials met with public health representatives and shadowed them as they carried out their duties, and so on. “These efforts will help us work together side by side in a command-and-control situation,” says Maj. Josiah Larry Moser III. “We realize there will be chaos in any event like that – we saw it with Anthrax – but this gives us traction to move forward.”

Knowing one another’s duties helps avoid misunderstandings, adds Bernard, who recalls Ottawa’s initial plan called for police to guard key health care facilities and clinics. “But we could not provide these services during a pandemic if we were missing as much as one-third of our staff and had a surge in other calls,” he says. “When we talked with agencies and explained what we may or may not be able to deliver, it opened a lot of eyes and eliminated false assumptions.”


Step by step

With partnerships in place, law enforcement’s next steps must identify essential functions to maintain during health emergencies, and then set minimum staffing levels for each task.

Fairfax County assembled health department and law enforcement officials to generate a critical services list. Public health officials delivered presentations on what police officers could expect during a pandemic, then everyone met in smaller breakout groups to figure out how they would deliver key services within these specific parameters.

“We said, ‘OK, you came up with this list, how would you support it?’ ” Moser says. For instance, payroll was deemed a critical function; officers need to know they’ll continue to be paid in order to meet their own financial obligations. But what if half the payroll staff were out sick? The planning exercise helped officials pinpoint staff members in less crucial positions, who could pinch-hit in payroll. By labeling the skills necessary for critical functions, officials were able to pinpoint personnel with specific skill sets, who could assist as needed.

Pandemic plans should also account for the absence of infected employees or employees with infected family members with plans for specific sick leave policies. Planning should also address how the department will deal with staffing shortages that could rise as high as 30 percent, notes “Benchmarks for Developing a Law Enforcement Pandemic Flu Plan” from the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF).

Ottawa’s planning included an operational deployment chart identifying areas that might be shut down or reduced if 10, 20 or even 30 percent of the staff were out sick. For example, the department couldn’t freeze certain functions, like patrol, but might suspend a drug unit – at least temporarily.

Operational deployment plans can draw from lessons learned in prior emergencies. Greene states his department learned plenty about prioritizing calls for service during Hurricane Hugo in 1989. During this event, the department put sworn officers holding administrative positions back in the field to answer calls for service, dispatched academy recruits to help direct traffic, put investigations on hold until the crisis ended. (Homicides were addressed immediately, however.)

“Everything was prioritized and if it was not critical enough to be handled immediately, it was shelved,” Greene says. “After the crisis, we slowly worked our way back to normalcy.”

Planning should consider public communications as well. Ottawa developed canned e-mail and phone messages and signage to pull out during public health emergencies. “Maybe it’s typical to respond within 24 hours but you’re changing it to 48 hours for that type of call. Maybe you’re not going to send an officer immediately to a break-in, but you’ll respond as quickly as you can,” Bernard says. “How you plan to alter service deliveries must be communicated to the public.”


Wash your hands!

The above planning addresses law enforcement’s first priority in a pandemic, but fails to address its second, which is caring for the safety of staff members and their families. “The reality is that no officer is going to show up for work if they are worried that their child or spouse might die,” stresses Bernard.

Vaccinating staff and their families is a key piece of the puzzle. How, when and where will these vaccinations take place? Greene notes the Charlotte-Mecklenburg PD tested its vaccination plans during 2009’s H1N1 concerns. When the department received H1N1 vaccine, they set up a distribution point at the police and fire academy and were able to vaccinate every firefighter and police officer, electing to receive the vaccine, within three days. “We could have done it faster, but we did it in such a way that it did not affect our shifts or require officers to come in when off-duty,” he says. “Had it been an emerging crisis, we would have proceeded more quickly.”

Fairfax, Virginia, Police Chief Col. David Rohrer strongly believes departments need to keep employee well-being top of mind. His pandemic focus includes a means of releasing regular messages about threat levels and safeguarding health, covering everything from frequent hand washing to the use of proper personal protective equipment (PPE).

This department also tested their plans during the H1N1 concerns of last fall. “We took heavy steps to educate,” says Moser. “Stressing hand washing and general hygiene were among our primary efforts.” He adds the department did not create new educational messages, but rather distributed existing CDC reports and pamphlets. As flu season rolls out again this fall, the department plans to release these messages again.


Put it to the test

Pandemic business continuity plans must be tested before they are needed, adds Bernard. “If you develop the tools and put the planning in place, but never test it, it is meaningless,” he says. “What you put on paper is almost never a reality.”

Ottawa revisits its plan annually; testing it in both tabletop and full-scale exercises to make sure it still applies. Afterward, officials revise the checklist created for commanding officers to know exactly what steps to take in a pandemic.

Fairfax County incorporates pandemic training into other educational opportunities conducted throughout the year. Fit testing of N95 masks, for instance, became part of officers’ annual fitness testing. Hygiene and hand washing were added to the academy’s existing lesson plans. Online training exercises keep officers fresh on health-related topics throughout the year.

Planning and training for pandemic doesn’t have to be hard or unduly tax a department, but it does need to be done. “Pandemic planning is just good business,” says Bernard. “These plans can be used in any emergency situation or natural disaster because they address how to remain operational and deliver customer services during a crisis.”


Ronnie Garrett formerly served as the editorial director of the Cygnus Law Enforcement Group. She now owns and operates a photography and writing business in Fort Atkinson, Wis., and may be reached through her Web site at