Law Enforcement and Emergency Response: Catastrophe Response during a Pandemic, Part 3

June 24, 2020
By Terry Pickering, TAC Law Enforcement Consultant
Risk Management News

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This is part three of a four-part series on catastrophe response during a pandemic. The second article examined human resources considerations.

Texas law enforcement and other emergency response entities are accustomed to responding to catastrophic events such as hurricanes, tornadoes, flash floods, wildfires, etc. Our past experiences have allowed us to fine tune our emergency response plans from lessons learned. However, we are now in uncharted territory since we are in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A perfect example occurred a few weeks ago in the state of Michigan. One of the states hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic, Michigan was left reeling after days of torrential rainfall caused record flooding that breached two privately owned dams. Up to 10,000 residents were displaced, and sought shelter with friends, family and at local shelters.

If a catastrophic event such as this occurred in your county, you may find yourself facing these logistical considerations:

  • What facilities are currently designated as shelters? If they are not government-owned facilities, such as churches, etc., are their owners still willing to accommodate displaced residents due to COVID-19?
  • While maintaining social distancing, what is the maximum capacity of your shelter facilities? Do you need to identify and contract with other facilities?
  • Who staffs these facilities? Is there a process to screen shelter staff for COVID-19?
  • Is there a screening process for those seeking shelter? What items are needed to screen individuals simultaneously at multiple locations? Where do you send those who are symptomatic?
  • What are the plans to accommodate your vulnerable population? (hospital patients, and residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities)
  • Do you have a sufficient number of masks or other personal protective equipment to give to those seeking shelter?
  • What sanitation items are needed and is there a sufficient supply? What sanitation processes or procedures need to be implemented?
  • Will law enforcement provide security at the shelters? Local resources may be unavailable and outside agencies may have to assist. Do you have enough  personal protective equipment to accommodate those personnel? Or do you require them to provide their own?

Most public safety entities have established policies and procedures for day-to-day activities, related to the COVID-19 pandemic, emphasizing the three S's: safety equipment (personal protective equipment), social distancing and sanitation. What effect will COVID-19 protocols have on your ability to perform tasks related to evacuations, search and rescue, and recovery operations?

Obviously, when time is of the essence and lives are at stake some concessions have to be made, but as the organized chaos subsides, we should be prepared.

In some instances you may find it necessary to evacuate your jail or correctional facility, which can be quite challenging. However, given our current pandemic status several additional logistical issues arise not only for those evacuating but also, those receiving agencies:

  • Are your agreements with other agencies current? Can the receiving agency still accommodate the number of inmates you need to move? Does the receiving agency have COVID-19 concerns or what measures are they implementing to address COVID-19 screening?
  • What safety equipment (for inmates and staff) do you have or need to acquire for safe transport?
  • How do you facilitate transport of those who are COVID-19 symptomatic or in quarantine separately from other inmates?
  • If multiple trips are made, what procedure do you have in place to sanitize vehicles, restraints, etc.?

In times of disaster, natural or man-made, our first responders are placing themselves at risk to protect their community. Doing so often means that they have left their family at home to face danger on their own. Not knowing whether family is safe certainly adds to the stressors and affects the overall safety and ability to perform as needed. Our county employees are our most valuable asset and organizationally we should do what we can to lessen stressors and allow our staff to focus on the task at hand.

  • Strongly encourage staff to develop a family plan. Determine forms of communication. Cell phones may not work. Agencies may consider establishing a specific landline number for families to call. Where will they evacuate to and are their COVID-19 concerns at the location? If so, alternate locations may need to be identified.
  • Everyone should put together "go bags" that contain important documents, medications, personal hygiene items, contact numbers and other essentials. Maintain a supply of non-perishable food and water.
  • www.ready.gov is a good resource.
  • Agencies should contemplate work schedules that allow time for employees to address any personal needs.
  • Don't forget about the overall mental health of all those involved. It is critical for them to receive counseling services, especially those public safety personnel who were actively engaged in search and rescue, and recovery, and those who have experienced a personal loss (life or property). The state has designated Critical Incident Stress Management Teams that can respond and conduct debriefings or you may have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that can provide services.

Researchers have predicted an "extremely active hurricane season" in the Atlantic region this year. There have already been two named storms prior to the official season that begins June 1.

Now is the time to review emergency response plans and ask yourself, "How do we keep our communities and our employees safe in a catastrophe within a catastrophe?" and "How does COVID-19 affect our decisions and execution of our plan?"