Experts in crisis management and emergency response presented along with two state agency representatives at a WHA conference in Madison September 20. WHA President/CEO Eric Borgerding said the recent storms that hit Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico are grim reminders of why emergency preparedness is so critically important.
“Our communities depend on us as the health care safety net in times of distress and disaster,” Borgerding said. “We are gathered here today to learn how to work not just as individuals, but as partners to carry out our responsibility to serve the citizens of Wisconsin.”
State agencies and the governor play significant roles in the state’s response and in deploying critical resources to impacted communities. Stephanie Smiley, director of the Bureau of Communicable Diseases at the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS), described how the incident command center operates at the state level and the state agencies and the processes they work within that are utilized in responding to environmental disasters, food safety, terrorist threats and infectious diseases.
Wisconsin is a “home rule” state, which means local public health departments have the authority to be the lead agency in responding. Smiley said the state does not drive the emergency response unless the locals defer to the state. The State usually just provides guidance and resources to help.
Peter Shult, PhD, associate director of the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene, provided an overview of the state lab operation and responsibilities, and he acknowledged the critical importance of the network of clinical labs located in Wisconsin’s hospitals to the early identification of a range of diseases, from influenza to anthrax.
“Clinical labs follow a strict rule—use your routine methods, recognize when you might be dealing with something unusual and report that to state lab to rule out if you are working with a high-risk specimen,” Shult said. “We have over 130 clinical labs in the state, and we work with every one of these labs on a first name basis and communicate with them nearly daily.”
Risk communications expert Vincent Covello, PhD, helped attendees understand the importance of preparing in advance for potential crisis situations and developing “message maps” that address the myriad of questions and concerns that can arise during an emergency. He emphasized communicators must keep in mind the fact that when people are stressed or fearful, their ability to process information is compromised, so keeping messages simple is essential.
Conference attendees likewise found value in a breakout session entitled “Active Shooter: Plan and Prepare,” presented by Christopher Sonne and William Castellano from HSS EM Solutions. Sonne and Castellano shared best practices and lessons learned from live active shooter scenarios, which are scenarios in which a person with a gun is harming or threatening to harm hospital staff, patients, or visitors. Participants in this breakout session discussed staff roles and responsibilities, participated in a tabletop exercise and practiced tactics for responding to an active shooter.