Law Enforcement Pandemic Resilience: Time to Recalibrate

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that cases of the 2009 swine flu – more formally known as the H1N1 global pandemic – have continued to decline in most areas of the world. Although initially compared to the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918-20, which killed more than 50 million people in countries throughout the world, last year’s outbreak was far less virulent than expected.  In June 2009, WHO raised its pandemic warning evaluation to Phase Six, the highest level in over 40 years.  Prompted by global criticism for overstating the severity, the WHO recently announced there would be a thorough review of the organization’s handling of the H1N1 pandemic.  Many public health agencies around the world also are re-examining their responses to the outbreak.

The H1N1 virus affected the operations of relatively few U.S. law enforcement agencies – but at least some of them developed plans for securing the Strategic National Stockpile of vaccine.  On the other hand, the nation’s healthcare community braced for a worst-case scenario, and several other agencies and organizations prepared and in some cases implemented proactive plans – for reducing social contacts at the workplace or in schools, for example, and arranging for vaccine distribution in anticipation of a more rapid spread of the pandemic.

Complacency may be one of the worst “end results” of the 2009 scare.  Not only law enforcement agencies, but many other public-service sectors as well, may be inclined “the next time around” to downgrade the importance of pandemic planning and preparedness.  Epidemiologists remain convinced, though, that the outbreak of a truly major pandemic outbreak is still only a question of time. In any case, with the potentially much greater impact of the 2009 flu still fresh in the public consciousness, now is probably the best time for law enforcement agencies (and other professional-preparedness communities) to create new plans, or at least re-examine and improve existing pandemic contingency plans. If nothing else, those plans, particularly in the law-enforcement field, should: (a) be realistic about their situational assessments and capabilities (and/or the lack thereof); and (b) consider the needs and concerns of other public-sector service agencies.

Teamwork, Cooperation, and Inclusiveness Logically, effective pandemic planning should start with assembling a strong team of knowledgeable, committed members and an examination of an agency’s possible functional vulnerabilities during a pandemic event.  Pandemics usually provide at least some advance warning as the disease spreads across a population area.  However, the speed at which diseases spread is far greater today than it was in years past.  The ease of global travel can spread a contagious disease from Asia to rural America in a matter of hours. Moreover, incubation and diagnostic “dwell times” make it possible for many if not quite all diseases to spread across several communities before the diseases are accurately diagnosed and typed.

Inclusion of the public health community in law enforcement pandemic planning can: (1) provide a more realistic understanding of pandemic conditions in the populations most likely to be affected; and (2) lead to a better inter-disciplinary appreciation of situational expectations and capabilities.  Hospital and public health department plans are in most cases fairly robust, and usually will include a reasonable assessment of security expectations. The inclusion of schools and other relevant entities is almost equally important in the external planning process.  A sheriff’s department may and should prudently engage the local judiciary and prosecutor’s office in its own pandemic planning.  Judicial proceedings also are likely to be adversely affected by a pandemic event – there would be a need, for example, to isolate exposed defendants who are already in custody, and the jury pool probably would be much smaller.

Internally, functional vulnerability assessments should consider various branches in the departmental organization.  Pandemic vulnerabilities in the sheriff’s department different considerably from those in the communications section.  Both mission areas are vital to the organization; however, the risk of pandemic exposure is much greater in the detention setting.  Each agency and internal branch or division will have unique vulnerabilities and priorities that must be addressed in a truly comprehensive pandemic contingency plan.

The individual law enforcement agency’s overall Pandemic Plan should complement and mirror parallel public-health plans developed at the state, county, municipal, and/or tribal levels of government.  For example, Florida’s Pandemic Influenza Appendix reflects the Pandemic Severity Index (PSI) developed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) as part of the state’s own situational assessment; county law enforcement plans should therefore also include situational criteria mirroring those in the state plan.  Keeping those plans as simple, consistent, and congruent as possible is another important guideline to emphasize.

Creating or improving the law enforcement-centric Pandemic Plan should reflect situational contingency elements relevant to each agency’s individual vulnerabilities and priorities.  These situational conditions are universal characteristics of a pandemic event.  Situational conditions should include certain assumptions relevant to the agency.  For example, it is generally assumed that a virulent pandemic event will degrade an organization’s staffing by as much as 40 percent.  Working under such a situational assumption will (or should) help frame the agency’s preparedness and response actions.

Internal Factors, Resilience, and Logistical Considerations Internally, the law enforcement Pandemic Plan should cross-reference and ensure congruence with other related plans, such as the Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP), various crowd control/civil disturbance plans, and similar policy statements and policies.  Fortunately, many of the internal and external consequences of a pandemic are similar to those encountered in other emergency situations. In addition, the congruence of plans greatly improves, and to some extent simplifies, the management of compounding or multi-modal events.  It should be kept in mind, moreover, that a pandemic event in which public safety resources are already strained may provide an attractive opportunity for a terrorist attack that triggers civil anarchy and/or rioting by a fearful public.

In the Pandemic Plan, as situational conditions hit closer to the locality, action items should reflect both mitigation requirements and heightened preparations. One example: If/when reports of pandemic infections are either national or regional, it might be prudent to consider the suspension of training and/or travel to and/or within the areas already infected.  Moreover, as and when scenario-based staffing effects shift from possibility to reality, work-schedule changes as well as changes in leave policy may have to be considered.

The law enforcement agency’s plan also should address the situational impact on assets critical to mission resilience.  Human resources are almost always the most vital, and the hardest hit, during a pandemic.  The Pandemic Plan therefore should address requirements for essential personnel and other staff members that may well mandate the ad hoc reassignment of at least some personnel to carry out essential functions.  Some agencies already have some personnel cross-trained to perform communications functions in the event the staffing demand in communications centers requires immediate augmentation.  The agency’s human resources consideration also should include provisions for “social isolation” possibilities (to reduce the impact of contagion). Tele-commuting also may be a possibility – for at least some personnel.  The prioritization and distribution of antiviral vaccines also should be factored into the preparedness plan.  Pandemic flu situations frequently require adjustments to agency leave policies and administrative rules.  To ensure consistency of command, the plan should clearly address the departmental line of succession – running deep into the ranks as and when necessary, and encompassing each critical functional unit.  Fortunately, pandemic situational management is well suited to application of the federal government’s own ICS (Incident Command System) policy guidelines and organizational structure.

Logistic considerations also must be factored into the plan.  Law enforcement agencies should assign, to specific staff positions, logistical management responsibilities and actionable directions – both of which should be linked to certain situational triggers for the acquisition, distribution, and replenishment of essential items.  Predictably, pandemic situations almost always increase the use and consumption of personal protective equipment (PPE) items – protective clothing in particular – that are likely to already be in short supply because of regionally high demands and/or disruptions in the supply chain.  Fuel supplies also may be adversely affected.  Recognizing that civil disturbances are always possible in times of a major disaster, law enforcement agencies also should consider the proactive distribution, in advance, of crowd-control equipment.

Communications – Including Facebook & Twitter The law enforcement Pandemic Plan should specifically address communications issues as well.  Internally, communications considerations may include notification changes in the chain of command decision-making process.  Changes in both situational reporting and decision making may also change internally as well.  One example: The frequency of reporting staff strength may increase dramatically. The same plan should address communications between the law enforcement agency and the community.  In future pandemics, social networking tools such as Twitter and Facebook will undoubtedly play a greater role in keeping the public informed.  Law enforcement agencies therefore should also consider how to best leverage social networking not only to improve their own situational awareness but also to serve as an effective tool for keeping the public informed.  Interagency and interdisciplinary communications capabilities also are likely to be affected by situational contingencies, and therefore require updating and improving on a continuing basis.

The development and improvement of mutual-aid agreements between agencies and communities should be another high priority, as should be the sharing of resources – as and when possible.  The severity of a pandemic usually varies considerably from one community to another within the same general geographic area.  The Spanish Flu of 1918 hit Philadelphia much harder than it did Chicago, to cite but one example.  Urban areas usually are hit harder by pandemics than rural areas are. Current mutual aid agreements should be re-examined, therefore, to determine if they are sufficient to address the full spectrum of pandemic realities likely to be encountered.  Most mutual aid agreements already address the possible need of short-term situational resource augmentation; relatively few, though, focus equal attention on the longer term conditions likely in a major pandemic event.  A comprehensive regional mutual aid plan that provides for both unified communications and shared resources may resolve agency problems caused by depleted staffing levels. Similarly, inter-disciplinary pandemic provisional mutual aid agreements across police, fire, and EMS (emergency medical services) communities may be prudent for some and probably most jurisdictions.  At present, few law enforcement Pandemic Plans factor the integration of state National Guard assets into the agency’s mission areas. 

The United States was fortunate that the 2009 flu outbreak had such a light impact.  The law enforcement community was possibly the biggest beneficiary of the “failure” – if it can be called that – of last year’s pandemic to live up to the worst-case expectations.  Nonetheless, recognizing that the next true pandemic is only a matter of time, the current inter-pandemic period provides a window during which improved planning and preparations are and should be a very high priority. The nation’s public health and medical communities already are applying lessons learned from the 2009 response to the pandemic; other disciplines should re-examine their response plans as well.

Law enforcement obviously plays a major role in any major event affecting the community.  The next pandemic is likely to have a much greater impact on law enforcement than last year’s H1N1 pandemic did.  Improved preparations – through a combination of better and more comprehensive planning, training, functional drills, and interagency exercises – will be the best way to ensure the continued security and safety of the nation’s communities, at all levels of government, against the next wave of microbial threats.


Note: The Spanish Flu (A/H1N1 strain) outbreak of 1918–20 claimed over 500,000 lives in the United States and, according to some authorities, anywhere from 50-100 million people worldwide.The Hong Kong Flu (A/H3N2) outbreak in 1968-69 claimed 34,000 lives in the United States and 1-4 million worldwide. The World Health Organization reported earlier this year that almost 18,000 deaths worldwide had been caused by the 2009 Swine Flu pandemic. Additional information on global flu pandemics is available in a report, Influenza Pandemic Preparedness (by K.F. Gensheimer, M.I. Meltzer, A.S. Postema, and R.A. Strakes) in the December 2003 issue of Emergency Infectious Disease. “

Joseph W. Trindal

As founder and president of Direct Action Resilience LLC, Joseph Trindal leads a team of retired federal, state, and local criminal justice officials providing consulting and training services to public and private sector organizations enhancing leadership, risk management, preparedness, and police services. He serves as a senior advisor to the U.S. Department of Justice, International Criminal Justice Training and Assistance Program (ICITAP) developing and leading delivery of programs that build post-conflict nations’ capabilities for democratic policing and applied modern investigative techniques. After a 20-year career with the U.S. Marshals Service, where he served as chief deputy U.S. marshal and ERT incident commander, he accepted the invitation in 2002 to become part of the leadership standing up the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as director at Federal Protective Service for the National Capital Region. He serves on the Partnership Advisory Council at the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training (IADLEST). He also serves on the International Association of Chiefs of Police, International Managers of Police Academy and College Training. He was on faculty as an instructor at George Washington University. He is past president of the InfraGard National Capital Region Members Alliance. He has published numerous articles, academic papers, and technical counter-terrorism training programs. He has two sons on active duty in the U.S. Navy. Himself a Marine Corps veteran, he holds degrees in police science and criminal justice. He has contributed to the Domestic Preparedness Journal since 2006 and is a member of the Preparedness Leadership Council.



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