An Interview with Colin D. Bishop, REHS/RS – part of a NEHA effort to highlight stories of dedicated professionals working to keep our communities healthy and safe.
Colin Bishop is the President of Anua – a company that provides sustainable water and air solutions, and the Chief Health Inspector for the City of Woodville, Texas.
NEHA reached out to him and asked a few questions related to his experience with emergency preparedness and hurricane disaster relief efforts. Bishop discusses love for nature, the importance of planning, and how the skills of environmental health professionals are necessary when natural disasters occur.
NEHA: What brought you to the profession of environmental health?
Bishop: I have always had a love for the outdoors and the planet. My youth was spent in two very different worlds. I grew up in the woods of central Maine in a very small town. My brother and I were outside all the time. We spent summers in the woods and did a lot of activities around water like fishing and swimming. We spent winters sledding in the woods and playing pond hockey. We later moved to Lake Havasu City, Arizona. My love for the western U.S. and desert grew tremendously. I came to appreciate the beauty of two vastly different worlds and the biodiversity they offered. I spent my initial years in Arizona catching lizards and other reptiles in the desert, and fishing on Lake Havasu.
My love for the environment and for health sprung out of what I observed growing up. I recall logs floating down the rivers to the pulp mills in Maine during the 1970s. The rivers were dirty. The pulp towns had horrendous air quality issues. I recall going to open dumps for trash disposal with my father at times. The dumps would have open fires going and smelled horrendous. I recall driving from Maine to Boston to visit my grandparents and seeing large amounts of trash scattered along the highways. When the bottle and can deposits came into effect in the late 1970s, the highways were cleaned up overnight. The 1970s Keep America Beautiful “Crying Indian” TV ad had a huge impact on me. It confirmed what I was witnessing as a child. In Arizona, I came to greatly appreciate water. The mighty Colorado River was so impressive to me. I also realized that Lake Havasu City would not exist in the harsh desert environment without that river and that lake.
As I went on to college, I cultivated my love for science. This love of science and the planet led me to first job as an Environmental Health Specialist with the Mohave County Environmental Health Division in Bullhead City, Arizona. I had applied for various environmental or natural science jobs all over the country. Ironically, I ended up close to where I grew up. I thoroughly enjoyed my first job and had some tremendous mentors. I would not be where I am today without them. I loved learning and applying science in the Environmental Health profession. I still love it to this day.
NEHA: You wrote about the importance of collaboration during the disaster relief efforts. Seeing that you have experience in both the private and public sectors, can you describe how coming together is critical in this context, and the role it plays in the EH profession?
So much of our world operates in compartments. It is this compartmentalization that can produce less than optimum outcomes even though people feel they are doing the right thing. Successful collaboration comes from the celebration of diverse experiences and knowledge channeled into focused efforts by the group. These efforts must be coordinated on a regional level and tactically executed at the local level. A little planning goes a long way. With disaster relief efforts, so many just want to jump and do something, anything. Oftentimes, this turns out to be ineffective and can even put people in danger. Understanding the mission and goals, with a plan and coordination between agencies/groups, will ensure more people are helped and resources are not squandered. There must be constant communication and feedback, education of the tasks at hand, and how task completion is measured and recorded.
Especially with disaster relief, most people are humbled by what they see and the daunting tasks of clean-up, and the human element. People’s lives have been turned upside down through the devastation. They have literally lost every physical thing they own. As can be imagined, people go through a range of emotions during crisis clean up. Along with providing relief through service, we help to support them emotionally: cry with them, laugh with them, and console them.
NEHA: Could you describe a typical day working on the frontlines of hurricane relief efforts with community volunteers?
The Gulf Coast is often hot and humid. There are no services available so it is a “pack it in, pack it out” situation. The work is very hard and physically demanding. People oftentimes are traveling from hundreds of miles away to serve. Prior to arrival, we do a lot of planning to ensure the group will have food and water, fuel, tools, safety equipment, proper clothing, and camping gear. Health and safety education needs to be thoroughly covered before deployment. Volunteers need to be educated about necessary health and fitness if they are to serve. Not all jobs require the same level of physical health, so volunteers can serve as couriers and camp attendants.
This allows all who would like to help an opportunity to serve. A typical day is very demanding. Working occurs either outside homes cutting down large trees and removing debris, or inside homes removing all the contents, including furniture and appliances. Once the contents are removed from the home, the drywall and insulation is removed. We get very dirty, hot, and fatigued, but still feel great because we are serving people and helping bring relief in their desperate time of need.
NEHA: What makes you passionate about disaster relief work, and why do you think it’s important to share with fellow EH professionals?
If I think about a person or family losing everything and the effect it has on them, then wanting to help becomes natural. When we get on the front lines and witness the positive effects it has on people, then we are ready to jump in again the next time a disaster comes along. The relief effort brings hope and healing. I witnessed people that are on the verge of breaking down. When we can help to relieve that suffering, then we do it. EH professionals are trained for these events. We have a diverse set of skills that are desperately needed in the community during clean-up. Much of the knowledge we take for granted is a huge asset during disaster relief. EH knowledge and skills can help ensure people are safe before, during, and after clean-up. So why not give back what we have learned in a very meaningful way?
To hear more about emergency preparedness, and meet other environmental health professionals on the front lines of disaster recovery, attend the NEHA 2018 Annual Educational Conference (AEC) & Exhibition and HUD Healthy Homes Conference, June 25-28, in Anaheim, CA.
Additional Resources: Mold Remediation Post Hurricane or Flooding Disaster and Food Safety and Emergency Preparedness
The September 2017 Journal of Environmental Health featured an article on enhancing resilience to environmental disasters, and NEHA's Executive Director's column focused on emergency preparedness.
Support the work of the National Environmental Health Association and those keeping our communities safe through Membership.
This project was facilitiated by NEHA staff members Jonna Ashley (Membership Manager) and Nancy Finney, MPA (Technical Editor).