Public health professionals fill vital roles in homeland security preparedness. One of these roles is to ensure that government decision makers are well informed on issues that may affect the life and health of - perhaps not all, but at least most of - their community members.
Public health agencies at all levels have extensive experience recovering from disasters, mostly without the benefit of a pre-disaster recovery plan. Established guidance from a number of federal agencies coupled with an inclusive planning process can help public health agencies ensure that they and the critical services they provide are resilient after a disaster.
Public health departments play, or have the ability to play, a key role in large-scale incidents caused by hazardous materials. By clearly defining their roles and collaborating with local partners, health departments have the ability to help emergency planners and responders prevent, mitigate, plan for, and respond to chemical hazards and incidents.
In the relatively young subspecialty of public health emergency preparedness, effective public health preparedness managers must identify the essential elements of their roles and the skills or requirements necessary to be effective in their positions. Although there is no set recipe for success, diverse and field-related skills are a must.
Pandemic influenza, an aerosolized anthrax attack, a nuclear detonation, chemical or radiological exposure, and other known and emerging threats and disasters are all potential threats to the United States. To combat these, one enterprise - comprising many collaborating federal agencies - is preparing to provide the necessary medical products when and where they are needed.
Once a public health outbreak occurs, it is too late to prepare. In 2014, Ebola highlighted gaps in the nation's preparedness for an unexpected viral threat that gained worldwide attention. Having supplies on hand or knowing how and where to get them when needed is the best way to protect public healthcare workers. The Strategic National Stockpile bridges these public health response gaps.
In a training scenario, a lose-lose situation may make a lasting impression on students, but does little to improve the decision-making skills of the responders. Regularly faced with making life-or-death decisions, emergency responders should receive training that includes no-win as well as winnable alternatives, thus reflecting real-life scenarios while not deflating student confidence.
An Ebola-infected American flown from Sierra Leone lies in critical condition at the National Institutes of Health. A nurse who contracted Ebola in 2014 when caring for a patient is suing Texas Health Resources for not properly training its employees. As these events demonstrate, biological threats to hospital workers still exist, and training must go beyond simply donning and doffing.
Equipment, plans, and personnel are only as good as their ability to perform when needed. When disaster strikes, it is imperative that local, state, and federal levels of government, emergency management, volunteer organizations, and healthcare coalitions are all operationally ready and trained to use all of the "stuff" they have acquired over the years.
Public health agencies serve valuable roles and fill operational gaps that only they can perform. Planning and training within and between agencies are necessary for public health services to transition from daily operations to emergency response to a widespread pandemic, environmental hazard, or other critical public health threat.