Public Health Preparedness Summit 2013: Q&A with Jack Herrmann

Mar 12, 2013, 11:27 AM

Jack Herrmann Jack Herrmann, NACCHO

"When the day comes that we’re not able to respond in the way that we think we should, that there will be a price to pay."

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) are among the partners hosting this week’s 2013 Public Health Preparedness Summit, which provides a national forum for public health and health care professionals, emergency managers, and other leaders to collaborate, learn, and share best practices—especially as budget cuts threaten strides that have been made to better prepare communities for disasters.

Conferences sessions include presentations on catastrophic preparedness, community resilience, biosurveillance, volunteer management, mass prophylaxis, public health law, and crisis standards of care.

NewPublicHealth will be on the ground at the Preparedness Summit in Atlanta this week covering sessions, exploring new tools at the conference expo and talking with plenary speakers and other leaders. Follow the conversation on Twitter at #PHPS13 and follow our coverage here.

In advance of the conference NewPublicHealth spoke with Jack Herrmann, senior advisor for public health preparedness at NACCHO.

NewPublicHealth: How do disasters that happen during the course of the year—such as Superstorm Sandy and the past year’s mass shootings in Colorado and Connecticut—impact the sessions at the Summit?

Jack Herrmann: Unfortunately over the last number of years we’ve always had some kind of event that we’ve had to focus on during the summit, some disaster that has occurred, so this year really is not unique. Last year we also had hurricanes and major tornadoes, and so we found ourselves having to rally around major disasters and pointing out how poignant the Preparedness Summit is because of the events that unfolded. This year, the Aurora shooting, the Newtown shooting, Hurricane Sandy and other events that have occurred really define why we all come together each year for this summit.

It is an opportunity to reflect back and remember how important it is for us to be able to prepare for events every day. I suspect many of the people who have sat in the audience never expected a disaster to occur in their community. So, it is a lesson for all of us in that we never know when disaster is going to strike and that it’s critically important that we’re always on our toes and looking for ways that we can enhance and build the preparedness efforts across our communities and across our nation.

NPH: When you look at the disasters of 2012, how did preparedness make a difference for communities?

Herrmann: We’ll never see 100 percent perfection in our response, whether that’s at the local, state or national federal level and that’s because disasters invariably are just unreliable in the sense that we never know how they’re going to roll out and what potential impact will be. There are certain things we know that occur during many disasters, common elements, and those are the things we try to prepare for—communication issues, the ability to work with multiple partners, to help ensure the safety, welfare and protection of human lives. But there’s never a state of where we are fully prepared for everything we may encounter in a disaster.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be striving to be as prepared as we possibly can. And so, each disaster does present a learning opportunity and we should build in a mechanism so that we understand where we experience gaps in our preparedness and be able to learn from them for the next time a situation occurs.

NPH: In 2013, how are budget cuts impacting preparedness response?

Herrmann: I think that’s a hard question to answer right now. Many of us who rely on federal dollars in the states and even the local community for preparedness are really still living off of funds that we kind of squirreled away year after year after year, trying to use the money we did get conservatively. So the full impact of the budget cuts are just beginning to be felt over this past year and likely will be next year. That includes the reduction of the public health workforce.

Surveys that NACCHO has conducted suggest that when local health departments are faced with cutting back programs, emergency preparedness is one of those that gets cut and the emergency preparedness infrastructure and resources that local health departments have is already limited. So, making additional cuts in those programs just compromises them even more. You may have a local health department who has one person who’s in charge of preparedness, maternal and child health, and the WIC Program and food safety. That’s one person wearing many hats and when you start taking away those hats; it’s bound to have an effect on that community.

NPH: Have the disasters and the budget cuts had an impact on attendance at the Summit this year?

Herrmann: We are actually seeing a fairly steady participation rate. Last year, we were in California and we always see a dip in our registration there but this year we have around 300 more people that will be in attendance than we did last year, though our attendance rates seems to be on par with where we were a few years ago.

NPH: How can attendees get the most out of the summit?

Herrmann: If someone is a new preparedness coordinator, then their job is to try to seek out those sessions that introduce them to a variety of different planning and preparedness issues that they should have on their radar. That should include things like learning ways to improve their medical countermeasure distribution in the event of an act of terrorism where they may be responsible for distributing and dispensing lifesaving medications. That’s going to be an important skillset and knowledge base that they need to have.

It’s also important to look at how to partner with other organizations in their community. Obviously, with limited resources at the public health level, they can’t do it all on their own and so it’s critical that they identify other organizations and agencies in their community that may have a disaster preparedness mission and what that agency brings to the table during a response.

NPH: What would you share with people involved in preparedness who are not attending the summit this year to help them get ready for the next disaster?

Herrmann: We are going to be taping a number of these sessions and they’ll be able to retrieve those on NACCHO’s Live Learning Center, and we know those will be valuable resources. And they also need to be on the lookout for tools and resources that are available to them to strengthen their preparedness programs. All communities are responsible for conducting a hazard vulnerability assessment meaning they need to know what are the common hazards and disasters that their community is susceptible to, and for the most part, that they should be crafting their preparedness plan around those hazards. There are thousands of tools and resources and online trainings that are available to preparedness coordinators and volunteers and others and so they need to know what’s out there that can improve their knowledge base, enhance their skillset and connect them to their peers who also can share best practices and lessons that they have learned through their own disaster experiences.

NPH: How will the sequester cuts impact preparedness?

Herrmann: The immediate impact has been that some of the federal officials that we had scheduled to present at the conference have been calling me over the last couple of days to cancel because travel has been halted at some of the agencies. We believe that there will be a rolling effect of these cuts such that they will impact the public health emergency preparedness funding that states and locals received through HHS, the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response and the CDC. If and when that happens, it will already impact a program that has received a number of hits over the last few years.

It always amazes me that year after year we are fighting to preserve the funding that we do have, and because I live this life everyday it just seems like a no brainer that we should be investing in our country because as soon as the disaster strikes, the public will look to its government to say, “what are you doing for me?” And they won’t want to hear, “sorry we didn’t have the money to take care of you and protect you.”

We don’t wait until there’s a fire to buy a fire truck. We invest in that infrastructure in our community so that when it happens, we’re ready to do something about it. In preparedness we are challenged year after year with educating elected officials and educating the public about how important it is to sustain preparedness infrastructure and it’s just getting continually harder to do that. And those of us who want to be optimistic are finding it harder and harder to do so because we know when that day comes and we’re not able to respond in the way that we think we should, that there will be a price to pay.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.