Adapting Emergency Management Foundations to Changing Emergency Management Priorities
How One Leader Is Handling the Pandemic and What We All Can Learn
Chief Matt Brown serves as Head of the Allegheny County Department of Emergency Services
(ACES), Fire Marshal, and County Emergency Management Coordinator. He is a Certified Emergency Manager (IAEM) and Certified Fire Protection Specialist (NFPA).
As a county emergency manager, what have you had to deal with in 2020, full picture view?
The start of a new year usually means schedules and budget preparations. However, in 2020 we were already knee high into planning, preparing, and even mitigation planning for COVID-19. This was on a smaller scale with primarily our ESF-8 (Emergency Support Function) Health and Medical committee initially, but deeply rooted in our efforts to plan and prepare for the pandemic in support of our county health department. We looked at the potential impacts at many levels, including public safety, hospital and medical, and the general public, and reviewed and revised our department’s continuity of operations plans. We watched, read, listened, and learned about the impacts around the world with a focus on the rapid spread of the virus on the eastern side of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Because everyone knew so little at that point, the best we could do was to educate ourselves and our stakeholders concerning what was about to come.
Around the middle of March, Allegheny County saw its first confirmed case of COVID-19. Soon, I was attending meetings and press conferences with the county executive and the director of our county health department. Unlike almost all previous disaster emergencies, emergency management would not be in the lead on the planning and response, but rather, in a primary support role to our county health department. At the media briefing, I shared our emergency management planning and preparation for the pandemic. My key message was simple: unlike most disaster emergencies, this pandemic is that one time when everyone is an emergency manager or a first responder. We all play a role in getting through this pandemic and enabling full recovery. It reminded me of my extensive hazardous materials and radiological emergency response training and the following adage: Time - less than 15 minutes. Distance - more than 6 feet apart. Shielding - wear masks and wash hands. I still repeat these statements multiple times a day.
2020 brought new challenges to address while we continued to maintain our normal duties. For instance, we had logistics challenges early related to the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) for front-line responders, medical staff, and workers requiring support in the pandemic. We had to quickly educate as many of our emergency management partners as possible regarding the pandemic. We needed to change how we met, made decisions, and performed tasks at every level of our operations. We launched additional efforts to plan and exercise for a potential alternate care site or ACS. We completed many pandemic-related, first-time efforts that continue today. But on top of all this, we had to prepare for and respond to flooding, snow events, storms, fires, and civil unrest. Even tornado response and election safety were on our to-do-list.
Most importantly, however, we created a virtual Emergency Operations Center (EOC) early in the pandemic, using the Microsoft Teams platform application. The continued use of this application allowed us to maintain a well-organized cadre of key points of contact throughout all Emergency Support Function positions. At times, our EOC team totaled 68 in attendance. We transitioned from a face-to-face, in-person EOC operation at our headquarters building to the virtual solution after just two days and have since operated virtually for any events, planned or unplanned, that required EOC activation. Assistant Chief Steve Imbarlina was the first to organize and apply the use of Microsoft Teams for our EOC activations, as well as many other uses to date.
How have you adapted to meet the challenges of COVID-19, personally, in your department, and county wide?
This pandemic requires every person to be an emergency manager or first responder. We each have specific roles and responsibilities.
For example, my wife, Beth, and I are new empty nesters, and 2020 has made this life transition even more difficult. Our son, Jacob, purchased his own home about two years ago and our daughter, Kailin, is serving in the U.S. Army, stationed in Bomholder, Germany. I intentionally mention these details because each one of us has stories or aspects of our lives that are impacted by this pandemic.
I have made a concerted effort to not only be a good leader, but also a compassionate coach, understanding counselor, better listener, educator, and even a cheerleader to motivate those around me. I believe that to some degree we have all had similar experiences this year. Making personal changes regarding how I live my life were not extremely difficult. Wearing a mask, washing hands frequently and correctly, and staying away from as many people as possible when I can, were easy. But most importantly, making educated and informed decisions and recommendations has become just as critical as I continue to encourage and motivate others to do the same.
Here is an example of how this has become an issue in my professional response. Early in 2020, I was present when Chief Imbarlina and some of our Deputy Fire Marshals responded to a fatal fire scene. I recall specifically having to pull the local fire chief aside and point out to him that his firefighters were gathering too closely without masks. I did not blame the chief for this issue. But this scenario has played out at every level of public safety response many times this year. Helping to act as the safety officer from time to time has been a necessity all year long.
How has your role as a leader changed as a result of COVID-19?
The emergency management response to a pandemic has been quite different from a normal disaster emergency response. Most important was the fact that the health departments at the county and state levels were in charge of the overall response. As county emergency managers, we successfully shifted our response to a supporting role. We were effective because we have always maintained a cooperative relationship with the health department.
The duration of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the difficult challenge. Maintaining a virtual Emergency Operations Center and many emergency teams meeting and collaborating for over a year has never been done in my experience. We continue to adapt and change, sometimes multiple times a day, to the new information, new guidance, and challenges.
As a leader, publicly and for my department, I have always been required to communicate facts frequently and efficiently. The coronavirus has been different. Many times during this pandemic, guidance, concerns, and priorities have changed rapidly requiring us to review, react, and respond with new plans within hours. Our teamwork, collective leadership, and passion for our duties to serve have carried us to success with every one of these challenges.
What lasting changes will continue to exist once the COVID-19 pandemic is under control?
A newly energized need for scientific knowledge and expertise at many levels, both within government and within the private sector will be evident. Having emergency managers and business continuity professionals with more training and knowledge to be better prepared to mitigate and respond to health disasters is at the top of that list.
Remote work capabilities and virtual operations will continue to improve. Our capacity to operate an Emergency Operations Center (EOC) virtually has already evolved and been standardized for many other emergency responses, planning, and training. The successful use of platforms and applications such as Microsoft Teams has resulted in enhanced operations and will allow us to further benefit as we move forward.
Lastly, in many cases, we have a reinvigorated sense of family and trust. Both personally at home, and within the workplace, we have evolved and improved many relationships and cooperative efforts – often under extreme stress. These challenges have fostered a higher level of cooperation that will continue to pay dividends.
What are your current challenges one month into 2021 and still in a pandemic?
Our current challenges still include the same challenges we had in 2020. Time, space, and distance must continue to be maintained as it relates to COVID-19 safety and health. We must continue to improve on ways to keep each other safe and healthy, at home, and at work. We all have financial concerns and challenges related to budgets and business plans and must review and prioritize our business plans to be as efficient and effective as possible with the services we provide.
Adapting to new and changing needs in the response to COVID-19 also remains a challenge. While COVID-19 testing is ongoing, we are currently assisting our county health department with vaccine planning and related activities. Continuing to plan for and adapt to unknowns regarding delivery and volume of vaccine, while being prepared to administer the vaccines when and where available, is a fluid situation – as is applying the appropriate prioritization to those in the most danger of contracting COVID-19 and having adverse outcomes.
We have had several “hot washes” following specific incidents and responses throughout this pandemic. A “hot wash” is an evaluation of lessons learned. For example, we have maintained a large team that has been tasked with planning and implementation of creating and operating an alternate care site in case our hospitals are overwhelmed due to COVID-19. Now we have plans that are adaptable to multiple locations and for multiple purposes like mass vaccination or mass casualty incidents in the future. This is just one example of how we will all benefit and learn to be better for the next incident.
As we always state in emergency management, recovery planning begins when the mission planning begins. We have applied this motto to every mission we have undertaken during this pandemic. Recovery is in process, at many levels, right now. It might not be evident, but we must all consider how we return to pre-COVID-19 operations and lifestyles, while still maintaining the safeguards and protections we have used to get us to this point.
This has been a marathon and not a sprint. We must and will recover from that marathon. We will heal and restore ourselves, emerge even better than we were, and ready for our next challenge.
We Have A New Administration in Washington. Is Your Organization Prepared?
Effective Monitoring and Communication Will Be Key to Successfully Negotiating A New Landscape
No matter your political affiliation, the leadership transfer in Washington, D.C. will bring about changes in how we do business. President Joe Biden issued a blitz of executive orders on day-one of his administration, including the Executive Order on Protecting Worker Health and Safety
. He has also promised to act on other issues that will require congressional approval.
Here is how we at C4CS® recommend you anticipate, prepare, and respond to the new set of circumstances.
Mr. Biden’s immediate orders on virus testing, vaccination, mask-wearing mandates, and personal protection equipment (PPE) supply and distribution will affect many workplaces. He has already instructed the Department of Labor to revise guidance to employers regarding Coronavirus workplace safety by early February.
Mr. Biden's immediate orders on virus testing, vaccination, mask-wearing mandates, and personal protective equipment supply and distribution will affect many workplaces. He has already instructed the Department of Labor to revise guidance to employers regarding Coronavirus workplace safety by early February.
Will decisions about testing and vaccination influence your plans to resume in-person work at your organization? What kinds of protective devices could now be permanently required? Who in your organization will make safety decisions, and how will you communicate with your employees regarding the upcoming changes? How will you respond to employee concerns about continuing to work in person, a return to work in person, or continuing to work remotely? Scroll down to read more about how the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and labor unions could play a role in your decision making.
If you do not already have one, we recommend creating a pandemic response team, and establishing a strong internal communications plan that keeps employees and other internal and external stakeholders in the loop. Demonstrating your commitment to everyone’s health and safety is paramount. How will you support employees in their work environment, whether in-person or remote? How will clients and customers be protected and served?
Economic Relief: Banks & Lenders
President Biden has committed to continuing to provide economic relief to people affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes extending the moratorium on evictions and foreclosures at least until the end of March 2021. Mr. Biden also wants to extend the moratorium on foreclosures for federally backed mortgages -- more than 11 million loans. In addition, the president has called for a continued “pause” on student loan payments through the end of September 2021 and has reaffirmed his support for cancelling significant student debt, which will require Congressional approval. All of these will affect lenders, rental companies, and landlords.
While this is a huge financial hit for many banks, lenders, and landlords, we recommend seizing the opportunity to demonstrate concern for your customers and their pandemic-related challenges. A strong internal and external communications plan that lets consumers, employees, and other stakeholders know what you are doing to help during a time of crisis will increase your company’s reputation, stakeholder trust, and bottom line.
Energy and Environmental Issues
For green energy companies, President Biden’s policies could be a boon. On the flip side, the president’s promise to further regulate fossil fuels, including rejoining the Paris accord and revoking Keystone pipeline permits, is creating new challenges for oil and gas drillers, pipeline providers, coal companies, and coal-fired power plants, to name a few.
The president has also pledged to take companies to task for what his administration considers to be past and future environmental pollution. One example is man-made chemicals like Per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). These “forever chemicals” have already resulted in regulatory action and civil lawsuits. PFAS should be a concern for any organization that has used and is currently using these chemicals as part of their manufacturing processes and firefighting foam, as well as where these chemicals have leached into the water table and wells, creating a health concern.
We recommend that energy companies actively monitor their positions and be prepared to respond to regulatory changes. Green energy companies should be ready to take advantage of regulatory rollbacks. Traditional energy-source companies must be aware of new regulations and be ready to lobby for their positions and communicate key messages. Without a doubt, organizations that could face regulatory action and lawsuits as a result of environmental contamination need to get ready to mount effective managerial, operational, and communication response.
Labor and Employment Law
Organized labor will have increased power in the new administration. President Biden has already made it clear that worker pay, safety, and work rules will be a priority.
Former union leader Marty Walsh has been appointed as President Biden’s new Labor Secretary. His department has been charged with immediately reviewing and recommending COVID-19-related changes in the workplace. Steelworkers’ union leader Jim Frederick will be the new OSHA head, charged with enforcing COVID-19 rules and other workplace safety measures. Labor leaders are also a major part of the president’s agency review teams, which will evaluate work-related policies and procedures.
Biden has also called for an increase in the minimum wage and has committed to passing the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (ProACT). If passed, this legislation will significantly change labor laws, expanding workers' collective bargaining rights, and add penalties for companies that retaliate against union organizing.
If your company employs union workers, we recommend closely monitoring your relationship with these workers and their union representatives to make sure it remains positive. Are you following contract rules and responding quickly to grievances?
If your workers are not organized, what are you doing to boost morale and address employee concerns, especially in response to pandemic-induced stress and hardship?
Bottom line: Big changes are happening and organizations need to keep up. We are ready to help with the following:
Internet & Media Monitoring:
What is being said about your company, products and services, competitors, industry, etc. in mainstream media and on social media? Our proprietary tools and analytical skills will allow you to stay ahead of the game.
When reporters ask what your organization is doing to respond to new rules and requirements, will your leaders be ready to speak effectively about key issues? We will make sure they are.
Are you prepared to make sure your employees are on board regarding what is happening and senior management's plans for the future? We can help you to craft messages so that stakeholders are informed and confident going forward.
How can you make sure your customers, suppliers, and other external stakeholders are confident in your response to new policies and regulations? We are the experts in helping organizations reassure their stakeholders in times of challenge and even crisis.
We hope you will turn to C4CS® for expert counsel, internet and media monitoring, training, executive coaching, and planning assistance when it comes to negotiating change, whether it is dealing with something in your company or industry, responding to a pandemic, or reacting to a new economic environment. We are ready to help!
This article was written by C4CS® Vice President Anne Linaberger, who is a former television news director, anchor, and investigative reporter. Interested in learning more about how we can help your company’s leaders effectively prepare for and implement necessary change initiatives? Please contact Anne at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Food For Thought
“There are two driving forces of misinformation.
On one hand, we see misinformation perpetuated when
we are in the absence of information. On the other,
misinformation prevails when there is a lack of trusted
information from a source that is considered reliable.”
Trey Watkins, SVP of global health and corporate responsibility at GCI Health