Preparedness Training Critical for Emergency Health Workers: Personal, Professional Readiness an Asset

Article excerpt

Last in a series on public health preparedness in conjunction with APHA's National Public Health Week. The April 2-8 event focused on preparedness, public health threats and vulnerable populations.

Though they may lack the familiar red sirens and matching uniforms, the nation's public health workers are essential to emergency response, and in turn, their level of preparedness training--both personal and professional--can greatly affect the people they protect.

A heightened level of preparedness has become a typical aspect of public health departments across the country, though challenges remain not only on the training and education side, but in striking a balance between higher preparedness preparedness expectations and traditional public health duties. Public health today is much better prepared than it was a decade ago, however, experts aren't sure how evenly that preparedness is spread across the work force, said Kristine Gebbie, DrPH, RN, professor of nursing at Columbia University's School of Nursing and an expert on the public health work force. While there isn't much formal data on the topic, Gebbie said, there is anecdotal evidence that there are workers who are training prone--or those who take advantage of all training offered--those who are training adverse and others who are simply very busy. Some schools of public health offer courses in emergency preparedness, but it is also not yet clear whether it's become standard curriculum for every student, she noted. And the surge in federal public health preparedness funds is "just about gone and now agencies are figuring out how to do this with their core budgets while keeping a balance," Gebbie said.

"Preparedness is only one thing most public health workers need to know," she told The Nation's Health. "They have to stay up to date on HIV testing, asthma control, restaurant inspection ... and agencies have to find an effective balance."

As part of their readiness efforts, public health workers and agencies must also consider some unique individual preparedness tips as well as ways to overcome barriers that could prevent workers from performing at full capacity or impede their ability to work at all. Some researchers have pinpointed a number of concerns public health and health care workers have in responding to a disaster or an infectious disease outbreak.

A study published in the April 2006 issue of BMC Public Health found that in a survey of 308 local health department employees, almost half said they were likely not to report to duty during a flu pandemic, though the likelihood of reporting to work was much greater among clinical staff than among technical and support staff. Researchers found that a worker's perception of her or his importance in a response effort was the most important factor related to a person's willingness to report to work. Also, an informal study of public health professionals conducted by APHA last fall found that the majority of those surveyed weren't personally prepared, with about 60 percent saying they lacked an evacuation plan for their households.

"Anyone who works in a health-related setting has to have a personal plan that includes the possibility that the worker might have to be on an unusual shift, in an unusual place and away for unusual lengths of time," Gebbie said.

Public health workers should make personal emergency plans that include the possibility that a friend or neighbor might have to care for a child or elderly relative, she said. Gebbie noted that one recommendation she's heard is creating special shelters for the families of workers expected to show up for long lengths of time and to aid during horrible events. Pointing to anecdotal stories of Gulf Coast responders leaving their posts over concern for their families' safety, Gebbie said a special shelter could help responders keep their focus on the response effort and provide the familial support often needed during tragedy. …