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Preparedness Month: A Tale of Two Health Departments

Date posted: Tuesday, August 10, 2021
Blog poster: NEHA's Preparedness Committee

In 2004, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) established National Preparedness Month. National Preparedness Month aims to promote family and community disaster planning during September and throughout the year. As our nation continues to respond to COVID-19, there is no better time to be involved than this September.

At this point in the COVID-19 response, your coworkers should know who you are and the amazing work being done by preparedness programs across the country. But if they don’t, Preparedness Month is a great opportunity to engage your health department coworkers in learning what preparedness and response are all about from the local to the federal level.

Local Perspective - Kent County Health Department, Grand Rapids, MI

As a local health department, we must remember all disasters start locally and end locally, so we need to prepare our staff to respond to all disasters in their professional and personal capacities. The Kent County Health Department’s (KCHD) Emergency Preparedness Program started providing a preparedness month program in 2016 for health department employees to prepare themselves and their families for disasters and have some fun along the way. The program offers rewards based on levels of participation. Every week during the month, an email is sent to all staff which includes preparedness information and an activity. At the core of the program are two major elements: a family response plan and how to exercise that plan, which are covered in the first two weeks of the program. The remaining weeks include various topics such as weather preparedness, cybersecurity, victim assistance, pets, and others. We also hosted tabletop exercises, had Emergency Operation Plan scavenger hunts, and in 2019, KCHD collaborated with Ferris State University’s Pharmacy Program to host a bioterrorism-based escape room competition. Those who complete the family response plan, exercise, and two other activities receive the highest tier of prizes which includes a giant microbe, the annual preparedness month pin, an emergency preparedness program pen, and the coveted Certificate of Awesome. At the end of the month, staff complete an online survey to self-report activities if they want prizes and to provide feedback on the program. Usually, fewer than ten people complete the highest tier, but we have had more than fifty involved in the various activities annually. While most of our activities have been focused internally at KCHD, we are interested in expanding parts of the program to other departments within the county and to community partners, as a prepared community is a more resilient community.

State Perspective - Utah Department of Health, Salt Lake City, UT

In 2019, I wanted to focus on engaging the Utah Department of Health employees in Preparedness Month to spread awareness among staff; however, the department has more than 1,000 employees, and targeted activities are limited. We decided to approach Preparedness Month by sending out communication to the entire listserv each week in September. It started with personal preparedness and moved on to include family, workplace, and community preparedness. On the last day of September, we used the Utah Notification and Information System (UNIS) to conduct a communication drill to rapidly alert staff. While COVID interrupted Preparedness Month in 2020, we will continue to leverage September to promote the preparedness system and continue to build a culture of preparedness among staff.

Call to Action for Preparedness Month

COVID put many activities on hold, so now is the time to re-emphasize the importance of preparedness with your colleagues at your workplace. August is a great time to start planning preparedness activities for your health department. Think of the potential hazards in your jurisdiction, the impact of climate change on those hazards, or responding to dual hazards - COVID pandemic and hurricanes or wildfires. Not sure what your hazards are? Find your jurisdictional risk assessment (JRA), hazard vulnerability analysis (HVA), and/or threat and hazard identification and risk assessment (THIRA). Your ability to respond comes down to the readiness of your health department. If you’re not sure where to start, Ready.gov and CDC both have great toolkits.

Once you’ve started a program and feel more comfortable, you can then expand to some other efforts such as:

  • Drill or exercise with your department
  • Lunch and learns
    • Emergency kit
    • How to make a family plan
    • Guest presentations from community partners (think National Weather Service, FBI, etc.)
    • Mental health and resilience
    • Pets
  • Scavenger Hunt in Emergency Operations Plan
  • Recruit non-traditional staff to help respond to emergencies

Photo credit: Ready.gov

Special Thank You

Karla Black, Ph.D., MEP, PEM, REHS is the emergency preparedness coordinator for the Kent County Health Department (KCHD) in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which serves over half a million residents in urban and rural settings. Since joining KCHD in 2012, Dr. Black has been responsible for responding to local public health incidents, fulfilling requirements of the Public Health Emergency Preparedness (PHEP) grant, coordinating KCHD’s Project Public Health Ready (PPHR) application, assisting in KCHD’s effort in achieving national accreditation, and serving on a variety of local, state and national committees. She currently serves as the vice-chair of NACCHO’s Preparedness Policy Advisory Committee and serves on NEHA’s Preparedness Committee.

Andrea Skewes, MPH, CPH, REHS, is a preparedness field assignee at the Utah Department of Health (UDOH) in Salt Lake City, Utah. Throughout her career in public health, Ms. Skewes has experience working at local, state, and federal levels in urban and rural settings across a multitude of public health programs. Since 2018, Ms. Skewes has been part of the Preparedness Program at the UDOH, working in volunteer management, grant coordination, and other special projects.