Behind the Hustle
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Stories worth telling.
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The reality of this pandemic has been a constant theme in the consciousness of DLX hustlers, as many of our champion customers are working on the front lines in the fight against COVID-19. To get a better understanding of what this seriously important work entails, I spoke with two emergency management professionals who have become part of DLX’s extended family over the years. Brian Barnes, Emergency Services Branch Manager at North Carolina Emergency Management, and Shawn Cochrane, Instructor at Bergan County EMS Training Center in New Jersey, gave me the inside scoop about the realities of responding to a global pandemic.
“It’s not necessarily how much you know, or how much you think you know, but understanding you always have a network of folks you can rely on to get better information or a different perspective to solve complex problems.”
WHEN A CRISIS CALLS – THESE GUYS ANSWER
Barnes has a decade of experience under his belt at North Carolina’s Department of Emergency Management, with much of his response experience being related to extreme weather like hurricanes. He coordinates the disaster medical sector of North Carolina’s state-wide COVID response and said that while the pandemic has hit North Carolina relatively hard, his state has been better positioned to handle it than some because of robust emergency services programs developed after Hurricane Floyd in 1999. Floyd caused three billion dollars of damage and killed 56 North Carolinians. The aftermath was ugly, but it redirected federal and private funds toward rebuilding the state and revitalizing emergency response efforts. Today, North Carolina has one of the most hardened, self-sufficient emergency management programs in the country. State response efforts are built on regional partnerships, so if one county is short on supplies or manpower, another will help to fill the gap. This system has proven effective for most disasters, but COVID-19 has created inevitable strains on these partnerships.
Cochrane has been in the emergency preparedness and planning industry in New Jersey for 30 years, working for Passaic Valley Sewerage Commissioners as an ESU Coordinator and also for Bergen County as an Emergency Medical Service (EMS) Instructor. Both positions involve educating groups of first responders on how to best approach dangerous situations and work together to expedite response times. He credits the state’s organized, united emergency response strategies to New Jersey’s proximity to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. “Everybody in emergency management…we were all affected. Whether we were there, or we lost somebody. We lived it. Yes, we read about rising COVID numbers in the paper and they’re big, but when 9/11 happened all on one day, we all knew somebody: somebody’s wife, brother, dad. Our hearts were all broken at the same time.” The pain of the past was a driving force in the revival of New Jersey’s emergency response programs, but COVID-19 is an invisible enemy that has evoked a more varied public response than the collective national sadness of the 9/11 era. It seems that previous disasters of record have been motivation to better prepare for the future, so now the question is: how will COVID change the way we do things moving forward, and how has it already begun to change the landscape of the emergency management field today?
A DEEPER LOOK AT COVID-19 IN CONTRAST
Because COVID-19 is a novel virus, new facts are uncovered each day about how the virus works, who is most susceptible, and how to best prevent the spread. This means response procedures must undergo constant reevaluation and adjust accordingly as data becomes available. Barnes described this pandemic response as being a lot like “building a plane while you’re flying it.” To complicate matters further, emergency response is a business of coordination – requiring interaction among many different organizations, agencies, and individuals. Traditional in-person meetings have been replaced by remote video calls, and interchangeable teams divided into smaller cohorts to limit interaction among those crucial responders. Barnes said he’s grateful for the technology that allows remote correspondence, but “things are just taking a lot longer than normal.” While the fundamentals of this response are similar to that of other emergencies, there are features of COVID-19 that make addressing it one of the most unique obstacles the modern-day emergency response industry has ever confronted.
If a pandemic response is like flying a plane, then the pilot is an epidemiologist and the flight crew consists of medical professionals, first responders, and public officials. Collaboration is integral to any emergency response, but who is driving the response is entirely dependent on the situation. In dealing with a life-threatening virus, it’s important to have scientific evidence to refer to, revealing the crucial role of epidemiologists and public health experts in the process. Another key difference between this emergency response and others, is its global nature. Emergencies tend to be geographically isolated, but COVID-19 is has taken no quarter: reaching nearly every corner of the world. This equal-opportunity virus has created a number of unprecedented scenarios for responders that include developing new methods of how to stock, store, and disperse necessary supplies while maintaining social distance, and innovating new strategies to minimize risk for essential workers. PPE shortages were an ongoing issue at the beginning of the pandemic, and although production has ramped up to meet the global need for these lifesaving materials, mask wearing has developed a second divisive purpose within American culture as a partisan identifier. With new obstacles arising each day and no clear sense of when vaccines will become widely available, it’s no wonder Barnes described emergency management in the age of COVID-19 as “a marathon, and not a sprint.” While methodology and time frame for a pandemic response has its nuances, there’s one tool that’s been useful across all disasters; and that is rapidly deployable shelters.
DLX’S ROLE IN A COMPREHENSIVE RESPONSE
“One night at the beginning of the pandemic, I was sitting on the couch watching the nightly news. There was a segment about COVID abroad and when I looked up, what do I see but a DLX shelter set up as a testing site. I felt like I was seeing my family on TV!” Cochrane’s anecdote reveals just one way our shelters have been utilized in the virus response on a global scale. Since early 2020, DLX field hospitals have popped up all over the world in response to the pandemic and the resulting pressure on medical systems. Other uses for shelters in this context include drive-through screening centers, surge capacity facilities, field hospitals, decontamination units, command centers, and mobile testing sites like the ones Cochrane worked with his county executive and Office of Emergency Management to develop. Bergan County has tested nearly 40,000 New Jersey residents in less than three months through the use of these mobile sites. When asked about the importance of mobile testing, Cochrane said, “If you don’t bring it to the people, they won’t go out and get it. We’ve got to get out there and let the people know it’s free. Come on, let’s get tested, we’re all one.”
Cochrane praised DLX shelters because of the limited personnel needed to set them up and take them down. He explained that, especially at the beginning, his teams of front-line workers were constantly shorthanded because of personal safety concerns or fear of bringing the virus home to loved ones. Working with less people meant they needed equipment that was quick and easy to assemble, with minimal manpower, and “not daunting to take apart after a long day of administering tests.”
In discussing benefits of shelter use, Barnes added that they don’t only create added space, but really harden critical infrastructure needed to treat all patients: COVID-19 positive or not. “By setting up a shelter outside a hospital for additional screening, you prevent someone from going into an emergency room or doctor’s office and potentially contaminating everyone inside. It definitely provides utility beyond our traditional means.” This increased utility is an important step to ensure people don’t avoid hospitals and treatment of medical conditions for fear of contracting the virus. Barnes also noted that the same shelters can pivot their use for other disasters, making them a multi-tool in EMS. Shelters may be an important part of the emergency management pie, but Cochrane and Barnes agreed that the main ingredient must always be teamwork.
NONE OF US IS AS SMART AS ALL OF US
In any given emergency response, there are numerous agencies involved, which means a lot of people to communicate with. Fortunately, the more minds that are focused on the same goal, the better the chances are to accomplish it. As Barnes put it: “It’s not necessarily how much you know, or how much you think you know, but understanding you always have a network of folks you can rely on to get better information or a different perspective to solve complex problems.” He described this reliance on relationships as the cornerstone of EMS.
Some agencies that are responsible for COVID-19 response are interdependent in their day-to-day functioning, but others are interacting first time under less than ideal circumstances. Nonetheless, they are united by a motivation to make a difference during these difficult days. While a level of comradery exists within the consciousness of front-line workers, so does the very real knowledge that the people you’re working with are actively engaged with the pandemic and could be carriers of the virus. Cochrane said, “It’s not always a happy job, but we joke, laugh, and do whatever we need to do to get through it.”
UNITED WE STAND, DIVIDED WE FALL
When Cochrane started his EMS career, he realized the importance of education is embodied by a 3-digit number: 911. From an early age, kids are taught to dial this number if faced with an emergency, and the result will be someone coming to help. As a responder to those 911 calls, Cochrane realized that despite a standardized way of making an emergency known, there isn’t always such a clear designation of who is best fit to respond. From this experience he developed a set of values informing his belief that emergency responders should work as a unit when dealing with major emergencies, not independently, and that the only way to create this mindset is through education. In EMS training courses he emphasizes the idea to his students, explaining, “If you educate everyone on how to save a life, and don’t put one group at an elitist level, I think everybody becomes cohesive as one team. At my school we teach our classes to think about the three major safety departments (fire, police, and ambulance) and how we can make them work as a rescue task force for an emergent situation.” Cochrane explained the benefits of working together in terms of strengthened bonds among responders, and most importantly, lives saved. “If we can get our hearts together as one, and our brains working as one, we will become a family and stay that way.” Barnes agreed, adding that he’s found solutions to some of the toughest problems by working with nontraditional partners. So, what does this mean for us?
“Everybody in emergency management…we were all affected. Whether we were there, or we lost somebody. We lived it. Yes, we read about rising COVID numbers in the paper and they’re big, but when 9/11 happened all on one day, we all knew somebody: somebody’s wife, brother, dad. Our hearts were all broken at the same time.”
Perhaps this is an opportunity to put my two cents in – so I’ll take it while I’m still holding the metaphorical microphone. Much like Cochrane’s example of 911 being taught as the unanimously appropriate response to an emergency, we must to educate Americans about the real threats on COVID-19 and their very important role in combatting it, regardless of personal ideologies. If we can put our opinions aside in favor of working as a team to protect one another, COVID-19 will meet its match. The virus may thrive in tightly packed spaces, but it has found an even better breeding ground within the preexisting valleys of division that polarize the United States’ sociopolitical landscape. Mixed messaging from leaders and an unwillingness to forgo personal comfort (mask wearing) in favor of public safety is only getting us further away from a healthy, safe society. DLX and our allies remain united in a single objective: to use our area of expertise to support response efforts, and in turn keep families and communities safe from COVID-19. It now falls on all of us as individuals to do our part, so that we can collectively beat this virus.
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