Disasters and Emergency Preparedness
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In both the distant and near past, Minnesota has responded to a number of disasters: floods, tornados, wildfires, infectious diseases, and more recently, the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis. Since 1965, each of Minnesota's 87 counties has been declared a Presidential disaster area at least once, and some multiple times.
The State of Minnesota relies on the following definitions of "disaster" and "emergency":
- Disaster means a situation that creates an actual or imminent serious threat to the health and safety of per-sons, or a situation that has resulted or is likely to result in catastrophic loss to property or the environment, and for which traditional sources of relief and assistance within the affected area are unable to repair or pre-vent the injury or loss (Minn. Stat. § 12.03, subd. 2).
- Emergency means an unforeseen combination of circumstances that calls for immediate action to prevent a disaster from developing or occurring (Minn. Stat. § 12.03, subd. 3).
Responding to disasters has always been an essential part of public health activity, and while public health has focused more on prevention activities than emergency response in the past few decades, its role in preparing for, responding to, and recovering from incidents has becoming increasingly important. Recent emergency preparedness funding has allowed public health agencies to improve preparedness infrastructure, identify public health hazards, create and revise preparedness plans, and conduct exercises to test those plans.
Public health has moved toward approaching emergency preparedness from a more holistic angle, called an "all-hazards" approach—that is, disasters and emergencies contain problems that can be solved by public health. For ex-ample: contaminated drinking water in a flood, food-borne illness in a shelter for tornado victims, air quality during wildfires, or public exposure to hazardous materials from a train wreck.
Building and strengthening partnerships is a critical preparedness activity in order for effective planning to occur prior to responses. By knowing your partners' responsibilities, skills, and resources (as well as your own), you can help facilitate a fast and effective response. This is reflected in a common disaster planning adage: "You don't want to be exchanging business cards during the disaster."
Emergency management departments serve as a major partner to public health during responses. However, the emergency management culture can be quite different from that found in a public health agency. You may find it useful to ponder the following:
Emergency management, like public health, has its own "language" consisting of a myriad of acronyms and jargon. This language is common to the national emergency management system, and it is helpful to learn it. Emergency management is likely just as baffled by public health's unique language, but working together will introduce both parties to new concepts and principles.
Related: Emergency Preparedness Glossary
The culture of emergency management is steeped in its history of being closely associated with the military. Many emergency managers have been trained in civil defense, military, law enforcement, and/or other first responder professions; many also carry emergency management duties in addition to full-time careers as veterans' services directors, dispatchers, sheriffs, etc. Emergency management also has a different proportion of genders in leadership, as does public health, although both are changing. These differences can create tension and communication gaps. It's important to learn how to be comfortable in the emergency management system and with the command style, and to work cooperatively to achieve an effective disaster response. Exercises, trainings, and planning meetings can help those new to the emergency management system become more comfortable with new terminology and structure.
Emergency management policies, plans, and processes are highly formalized and very detailed, but for a very important reason: this allows organizations to facilitate rapid disaster containment, and ensure that other partners (like public health) can start to help as soon as possible. Despite this level of detail, emergency managers also highly value flexibility and creativity, and believe that "thinking on your feet" is an essential skill in the face of a disaster.
A number of excellent resources exist to help you learn about the requirements that accompany different preparedness funding streams, activities that have taken place in the recent past, and the impact of preparedness work. Some include:
- Staff members in your department assigned to preparedness
- MDH regional public health preparedness consultant or regional health care preparedness coordinator (RHPC)
See: Public Health, Health Care, and Behavioral Health Preparedness Regions and Teams
- County emergency manager
See: County Emergency Managers [Minnesota Dept. of Public Safety]
The MDH Office of Emergency Preparedness recommends that all CHS administrators take, at minimum, the FEMA course IS-100.b: Online Course: Introduction to Incident Command System.
- Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Recovery
Minnesota Dept. of Health
- Public Health, Health Care, and Behavioral Health Preparedness Regions and Teams
- County Emergency Managers
Minnesota Dept. of Public Safety
- Individual/Family Preparedness
- Emergency Preparedness and Response
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Note: Some CDC recommendations may differ from those in Minnesota
- Public Health Preparedness
National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO)
- Homeland Security and Emergency Management Division
Minnesota Dept. of Public Safety
- Current, Past Minnesota Disaster Declarations
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
- Independent Study Program
FEMA Emergency Management Institute