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.”
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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.