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Care for employees

Brian R. Usher, Director of Public Works, City of Largo, Florida, and member, APWA Emergency Management Committee; Teresa Scott, P.E., Director of Public Works, City of Gainesville, Florida, and Chair, APWA Emergency Management Committee

When the worst happens in our communities, we count on our employees to be there in support of our mission. Repeatedly these employees have not only met our expectations, but have surpassed them with their heroic, selfless dedications. Whether from hurricane, wildfire, flood, tornado, snow storm or countless other events impacting our communities, the dedication of our employees who place their communities first has been a proud constant in our business. One area we as employers have not been as dedicated to is providing the same level of dedication to our staffs as we expect from them.

This situation is slowly being remedied as emergency plans are being updated and we include lessons learned from other communities across the country. It has been the unfortunate news headline when a community disciplines or terminates employees who found themselves forced to make a decision between what they feel is their family's well-being and their responsibility to their community. While not often reported, these types of cases have made headlines across the country. Partially in response to these situations and partially because of lessons learned during the past ten years of emergency response, communities are beginning to provide support to employees and their families during times of disaster.

Family Member Support
In Largo, Florida, dependents of City employees have access to a shelter facility reserved just for them. City employees sign their families up at the beginning of the annual hurricane season to ensure enough food and water can be provided. The online sign-up form also asks if the family is sheltering elsewhere or at home, and for family contact information. If their plans change, any employee family member with identification can seek shelter if their needs arise. Housed in the city's Cultural Center, this facility swings into action when a hurricane watch is posted, or as other incidents dictate. Materials and supplies are moved in according to the City's Emergency Operations Plan. The dependent check-in process is done electronically on the City IT system ensuring that not only tracking occurs, but that employees and their department can check online that their family is checked in.

City employees are also surveyed each year to determine whether they and their families are capable of securing their homes themselves, or if help may be necessary. If family members are unable to secure the home, the City will provide assistance with the installation of storm shutters, securing doorways and evacuating the structure. In this way City employees can concentrate on their job responsibilities and not be distracted by concerns for their loved ones. Another level of support implemented in 2007 was the voluntary collection of homeowners insurance contact information. Employees choosing to participate provide the City with their Homeowners Insurance contact information. If their homes are damaged while they are involved in a response activity, the City will contact the insurance company for them, initiating the claim process and again relieving them of additional burdens and concerns.

Providing family support goes beyond just addressing shelters and feeding. With growing concerns of a global influenza outbreak, community planning should address not just employees but also their families. In the sealed environment buildings we work out of today, any infected employee can wreak havoc on your operations. If you have plans to include the inoculation of employees in the event of an epidemic, you should consider including family members as well. Again, employees will not be able to give you their full attention if they are worried about sick family members at home. The possibility of cross infection from employees with sick family members to other members of staff or the community is obviously one to be taken seriously. It has been estimated that over one-third of our employees could be affected at any one time from a pandemic flu outbreak. It is obvious that we must protect our most vital resource, our employees, from this additional emotional and physical strain.

Employee Support
Direct employee support during times of crisis is also important. When planning for extended operations involving response and recovery activities, it is critical to ensure some method exists to feed, shelter and support employees working in extended, harsh conditions. Simple things like hot meals, fluids for rehydration and shade with either heat or cooling ability not only extend your staff's capabilities and endurance, they provide for improved morale, leading to longer employee concentration and dedication.

The City of Gainesville Public Works Department employees being fed during the 2004 hurricanes in Florida

With the recent introduction of quick-prepare foods for bulk feeding, the logistical issues surrounding the storing, distribution and preparation of meals for employees is less troublesome than before. The new meals are easily stackable, heat themselves, and offer both standard and vegetarian selections. Combined with new waterless hand sanitizers, keeping our employees properly fed is now easier than ever before. The longer shelf life of bottled water also is an asset when preparing for emergency operations. With an average two-year shelf life, cases can be stocked and rotated through their shelf period to maintain safe product. It is important to properly anticipate the actual level of food and hydration products you may need for your staffs during extended operations. The number of regular staff may be enhanced with outside assistance personnel responding to your incident. Examine your emergency operations plan to determine what your total personnel needs may be.

It is also important that when building your plan you address supporting your employees in the field. Too many times we have witnessed responders establish a feeding or rehabilitation station inside a secured or "warm" zone sector. Many of the responders to these incidents do not possess the credentials to enter such a zone, and are unable to access this resource. Those in the Emergency Operations Center anticipate that food and hydration are taken care of, learning only later that numbers of responders were unable to have access. This is most often the case when agencies beyond your own organization are involved, as they may not understand your agency's access policies.

Often forgotten or ignored is the need to provide regular rest for our employees. Time after time we find ourselves and our staff pushing our endurance to the limit, only to crash either emotionally or physically. It is important to remember that we only function well for 12 to 18 hours. After that time passes we may still be making decisions, but they are probably not being well thought out or evaluated. Staff and crews working without proper rest not only endanger themselves, but others as well. At the time we justify this because we "have to get it done," "only I can do it" or "we don't have enough people." If any of these is truly the case you need to take a fresh look at your emergency plan. It is situations such as these for which mutual aid was designed. We need to remember it is not a weakness to ask for help. Work with your neighbors to familiarize yourselves with each other's plans so that you can work in tandem if the need arises. If working on a larger scale event, regional mutual aid such as the plans in New Hampshire; Florida; DuPage County, Illinois; and Rock County, Wisconsin, provide just such a safety valve.

Too often we find ourselves looking back at an operation during the after-action report, realizing we overstretched ourselves and our staffs. Hopefully we do not find any major problems directly attributed to the issues described above. We always claim we will work to change the situation so that we don't have to do it again, but then we get busy or forget, and time slips past without our action. Let's not miss the lessons from the past. Take time now to review your plan, work with your staff and emergency management team, and ensure that your future response is more user-friendly to your employees. To quote APWA President Larry Frevert during his address at the 2007 APWA Congress, this is one of those times to ask yourself, "If not me, who? If not now, when?"

Brian Usher can be reached at busher@largo.com or (727) 587-6741; Teresa Scott can be reached at scottta@cityofgainesville.org or (352) 393-8801.

Note: If you would like more information on employee care during a crisis, plan to attend the workshop session scheduled to take place during the 2008 Congress in New Orleans, Louisiana.