Natural Disasters Call for Community-Wide Planning and Response
By Kevin Taylor
Faculty Member, Homeland Security at American Military University
Hurricane Matthew is a stark and unfortunate reminder of the particular steps we must all take under the broad umbrella of homeland security to prepare for the vast damage caused by natural disasters. This is especially true for private sector healthcare, because the services that our community’s clinics and similar facilities provide are integral to our collective physical and social resiliency when facing and recovering from a critical incident.
Keeping Healthcare Facilities Functional Is Vital after Natural Disasters
Clinics are a key component of our nation’s critical infrastructure because they are in the healthcare and public health sectors. Natural disasters and extreme weather pose a threat to these sectors. A failure to plan for and react to events such as Hurricane Matthew can have disastrous results. Therefore, it is critical to establish robust working relationships between emergency management professionals and healthcare practitioners to take full advantage of the resources and expertise they possess.
Take the example of a small, privately owned regional clinic. First, physicians, nurses and other healthcare employees would be out of a job after a disaster event, either for a short time or on a long-term basis. Unemployment would adversely affect their personal finances and negatively affect local economies as well.
More importantly, the healthcare services that many community residents depend upon would shut down or be dramatically reduced. For small communities with limited healthcare facilities, a reduction or elimination of healthcare would be especially detrimental to the well-being of local citizens.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) says that maintaining functional healthcare workers is vital to communities. According to a May 2016 DHS report, “Healthcare and Public Health Sector-Specific Plan,” the “loss of key personnel, especially at the local level and in rural communities where personnel redundancy may be an issue, can be even more disruptive and carry a greater impact than the loss of a key facility.”
Large-Scale Natural Disasters Have a Domino Effect on Vulnerable People
Any large-scale disaster that spreads across a broad geographic area has a domino effect on the health of those people who are most vulnerable to disruptions. They include the elderly, people who need regular healthcare treatments (such as dialysis or chemotherapy) and those with limited mobility .
Assess Disaster Possibilities and Create Continuity of Operations Plan
So what steps can clinics and other healthcare facilities take to be as prepared and resilient as possible?
First, there has to be an awareness and assessment of various climate hazards. Knowing the hazards that could impact the community would help community leaders and healthcare facility leaders to determine vulnerabilities.
That information could then be used to formulate a proper continuity of operations plan. Numerous resources are available for assistance in creating such a plan, such as FEMA’s Continuity Guidance Circular 1.
Actions such as creating continuity plans are necessary to provide uninterrupted essential services to the public and to adhere to the simple notion of “do no harm.”
The Heritage Foundation highlighted the need to be prepared for major disasters in a 2013 report on Hurricane Sandy. The report noted, “Nothing can be more detrimental to the response to a catastrophe than if first responders must waste vital time and resources taking care of those who could have taken care of themselves.”
The private sector is often the “first” first responder on the scene and must take steps to be as self-sufficient and resilient as possible. The private sector should be seen as an asset, rather than a detriment, to overall emergency efforts.
Of course, these private-sector actions take a great deal of initiative, dedication and willingness to reach out and work with others in the homeland security field. Yet, it is a responsibility that must be embraced and accepted by local leaders and citizens. Any threats that might affect an organization and its services, whether they are related to climate hazards or other probable hazards, must be anticipated and continuity plans should be made.
About the Author
Kevin Taylor possesses a M.A. in Security Studies from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School and a M.S. in Adult and Technical Education from Marshall University. He currently serves as an instructor within the School of Security and Global Studies.