The Role of Public Health in Emergency Preparedness

Published: October 13th, 2016

Category: Fall 2016

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Written by: Johanzynn Gatewood

How often can we predict an emergency? And when we can, how often are we prepared for what happens next? In public health, an emergency could be a natural disaster like a hurricane, or a disease outbreak, like the 2009 H1N1 Influenza outbreak. What is our role if and when a disaster strikes?

One of the ways I began to understand my role in public health was through completing an internship at Alachua County Emergency Management. When I began my internship, I had no idea what to expect, and I had a shallow knowledge of what emergency management was. During my time here, I learned about how public health intersects with emergency preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation.

As it turns out, my agency plays a huge, underrated role in public health. For those who are unfamiliar with the field,  emergency management is responsible for the organization, administration, and operation of the emergency management activities, services, and programs within the county and serves as the intermediary between local governments and their interaction with the Florida Division of Emergency Management (FDEM) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Emergency Management also serves as the liaison for and coordinator of municipalities’ requests for state and federal assistance during post-disaster emergency operations. Basically, this means we do everything in our ability to make sure that the right people and resources are in right place, if or when, a disaster strikes.

Think about it. What happens when you don’t plan for something? The outcome of the situation can  become more and more out of your control. When we don’t plan for disasters, we increase the likelihood of human mortality, lost economic revenue and damage to our own personal  assets. While some of us may never directly work in the field of emergency management, every public health professional should strive to be prepared for any public health emergency. As public health professionals, it will always be our ultimate goal to prevent any unfavorable outcomes to vulnerable populations.

One of the valuable lessons I have learned during my time at Alachua County Emergency Management is the necessity of teamwork. To prepare for future public health emergencies, we must involve every level of government, the private sector, non-governmental organizations, and community members. An emergency does not affect just a handful of people, but the whole population. In our field of public health, we do not work in silos. Constant collaboration between all concentrations of public health, and even in other sectors of health (i.e. physicians, nurses, etc.), will be needed to effectively and comprehensibly tackle the health concerns and emergencies of our nation.

In preparation for Hurricane Matthew, I observed how our local government, community leaders and partners had to make key decisions given a short amount of time until landfall. Are we going to close schools? Are we going to open shelters? Can RTS buses take local residents to the shelters? These are the types of questions raised when all the partners have to decide what to do next during an emergency situation. There is a lot of coordination that goes on behind emergency preparedness and as such, we should also be prepared to participate in those conversations by understanding what our role can be during times of emergency.

After the disaster, we will be needed to fill the gaps that require the knowledge and expertise of public health professionals. Community needs assessments will need to be completed to evaluate what a population needs after a disaster. Resource mapping will be needed to consider what resources a population has left after a disaster. Those who work in environmental health will need to consider any hazards that may pose a threat to the communities they serve, whether that be standing water as a potential host site for mosquitoes or water-borne diseases that could develop from contaminated water sources. These are just a few examples of what our potential roles will be once the disaster has been mitigated.

Even though most of us in public health may never directly work in emergency preparedness, I do believe that all of us should consider how we will serve our population once a disaster strikes. For those who want to learn more about emergency preparedness, please visit www.fema.gov or contact your local Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) at 352-263-6500 to enroll in emergency preparedness classes.

Edited by: Kelli Selwyn

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Johanzynn Gatewood is currently a second-year Master of Public Health Candidate at the University of Florida College of Public Health and Health Professions and an intern at Alachua County Emergency Management.