On September 14, 2008, PPBI sponsored the mock disaster at DRJ’s Fall World in San Diego. More than 150 conference attendees were asked to respond to a public health emergency wherein an outbreak of an undiagnosed illness occurred in seven U.S. major cities on the same day. The illness impacted adults working in inner-city office complexes. There were no reports of illness among children or in rural areas. Seated at tables designated as elements of private/public organizations, participants were to work together to indicate what actions they would take in response to the news of the outbreak.
Each participant was provided with a hard copy of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services book, “Public Health Emergency Response: A Guide for Leaders and Responders.” The book contains chapters on public health response, key functions of federal public health agencies in an emergency, risk communication during a terrorist attack, legal and policy considerations, taking care of yourself, conducting exercises, and more. It is available free on line at http://www.hhs.gov/disasters/press/newsroom/leadersguide/freo_508_final.pdf.
The purpose of the mock disaster was to provide BCP specialists with a challenge outside the usual IT or natural disaster scenarios. With a public health emergency, the effects on business may not be immediately evident. Yet the consequences could be disastrous. Something is causing serious illness which in turn is causing public fear and apprehension. A dangerous biological substance (Lewisite) has been introduced to urban business settings with no known explanation. A terrorist group has taken credit for the act, but little is known about how much of the substance they have or where it is located.
Participants were asked to play roles in policy, public affairs, facilities, IT, BCP, and crisis management team leaders. They were not asked to play roles from a fictitious organization, but rather to respond as they might in their own organization. This presented some confusion to the participants. Several asked for more specific direction, as if they were actors in a play. Each table was provided a copy of the DOT Emergency Response Guidebook which provided cautionary information for responding to hazardous substances. Still, participants seemed puzzled about how a disease outbreak would impact business.
The challenge was to discuss ways of getting information, conducting damage assessment, contacting public health agencies, activating your crisis management team, using the applicable portions of your pandemic plan, and making plans to take care of your people – reducing fear, providing information, and reassuring your stakeholders.
PPBI placed a heavy emphasis on gathering evaluative feedback, collecting 86 evaluations with a score of 8.9 out of 10.. We gave participants adequate time to complete the evaluation and a prize for turning it in. The real value was in the comments provided. Participants wanted more specific assignments, even if they were not their normal roles; they wanted a “story” to define the corporate culture; better definition of group roles; stated expectations of their actions; seating with others from similar organizations; greater interaction between tables; a time line at the beginning; mixed corporate roles at each table; and a more global approach as the conference is international.
We at PPBI have interacted with both public and private organizations in real disasters and in many corporate and conference exercises. We appreciate the valuable feedback. This scenario was designed to provide a very real look at a terrorist public health emergency. In our estimation, little information would be immediately available. Companies would have to respond quickly, assessing their situations. People would need to know the company’s stance on the incident, and risk communicators would need to be on the job immediately. Contact with local, state, and federal public health agencies would need to be established early. There are valuable portions of a pandemic plan and a business continuity plan that could be applied to a public health emergency. Yes, in this mock disaster, you were not given a fictitious role to play, but a challenge to respond as you might from your own organization, recognizing that as many as seven cities were attacked with a biological weapon on the same day. Frightening!
Special thanks to the members of the North County Fire Protection District and the North County CERT Team from Fallbrook, California for their assistance. We also thank the DRJ Editorial Advisory Board members, PPBI members, and PPBI Board members who assisted.
Dr. Tom Phelan is author of “Emergency Management and Tactical Response Operations: Bridging the Gap,” an associate professor in the School of Public Safety and Health at American Public University, an adjunct at Elmira College, and president of Strategic Teaching Associates, Inc. firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Appeared in DRJ's Winter 2009 Issue"