Environmental Health Professionals and Emergency Preparedness: Canadian Perspectives

By Forsting, Sara L. | Journal of Environmental Health, November 2004 | Go to article overview

Environmental Health Professionals and Emergency Preparedness: Canadian Perspectives


Forsting, Sara L., Journal of Environmental Health


Background

Since the terrorist attacks of the fall of 2001, public health agencies have been redefining their roles as first responders. Public health, including environmental health, is part of the overall readiness of all government and private entities. Preparedness has taken center stage at local, state, and federal levels as the nation prepares for future emergencies. Policy makers have tasked public health agencies with developing response plans, training other responders, and responding themselves, all in addition to their standard public health responsibilities. Within the public health field there remains much information to be developed and shared regarding emergency preparedness. Public health officials need to assimilate as much available information as possible and integrate the new data into their preparedness efforts, including information from other nations that have experience of this type.

Identifying the roles and responsibilities of environmental health personnel during a bioterrorism response has not been as straightforward for public health agencies as identifying the roles of other staff. The distinction between the roles of communicable-disease staff and of environmental health officers is sometimes ambiguous. What are the roles of environmental health professionals in terrorism preparedness? As advanced as planning efforts are, there is still uncertainty about where environmental health professionals specifically fit in. Many local and state agencies are looking for emergency response models to assist with the development of their own organization's response plans, especially with definition of the roles of environmental health professionals.

Neither public health nor environmental health is new to emergency preparedness. Many environmental health professionals already respond to natural disasters and chemical spills. For example, environmental health concerns and response efforts at the sites of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks addressed air and water quality, radiological and bioterrorism threats, hazardous substances, waste removal, and routine public health checks (sanitation, food handling, restaurant inspections, rodent complaints, and so forth) (Lyman, 2003). The September 11 responses were, however, more ad hoc than a full preparedness plan would allow. Public health agencies need concrete ideas and examples of how to integrate their environmental health employees into their response efforts.

Sabbatical Purpose

The goal of this National Environmental Health Association Canadian Sabbatical, which took place from September 23 to October 17, 2003, was to learn how a local Canadian government agency integrates environmental health professionals into planning, training, and responding to potential public health emergencies. The local Canadian government agency chosen for evaluation was Vancouver's public health system, the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority (VCHA). The objective was to gain an understanding of environmental health professionals' emergency preparedness roles at VCHA. Also, the sabbatical provided an opportunity to collect case studies of environmental health professionals participating in and resolving public and environmental health challenges. Ideas, processes, and strategies used in Vancouver could then be shared with public health colleagues in the United States and potentially applied to their environmental health programs. One agency cannot provide all the information necessary to completely define environmental health roles in emergency preparedness, but it can provide a perspective that, when added to others, can contribute to a better understanding of environmental health roles.

The Vancouver Coastal Health Authority

The Canadian province of British Columbia has five regional health authorities: Vancouver Island Health Authority, Vancouver Coastal Health Authority, Fraser Health Authority, Interior Health Authority, and Northern Health Authority.

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