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October 18, 2004
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The H.R. Doctor Is In

Dependents Depending

This article is written from what has seemed like “hurricane central” this year: South Florida. Emergency operation centers of city and county governments have been activated repeatedly this year as parts of the southeastern United States have been slammed by Hurricane Charley, then by Hurricane Frances, then by Hurricane Ivan, and finally – one hopes – by Hurricane Jeanne. The Atlantic hurricane season still has several weeks to go before it ends.

There has been a renewed emphasis in recent years on preparedness for disaster whether the disasters have been induced by nature or self-inflicted by other members of our own species. There have been anthrax attacks, sniper shootings and repeated terrorist alert level changes. In addition, there are the annual spate of wildland fires in the western United States and the ever-present worries about earthquakes, floods, famine, boils, frogs and other plagues.

In a career spanning more than 30 years of public sector service as a director and a county administrative officer, the HR Doctor has spent days, if not weeks, “living” inside activated Emergency Operations Centers (EOCs).

EOCs are going through their own metamorphosis including an emerging new title – Unified Command Centers (UCCs). No matter what we call them, they are not the most pleasant places in the universe to spend quality time.

Generally, the buildings are constructed to a high level of building code, designed to resist sustained high winds, or to be earthquake resistant. In smaller cities and counties, without the luxury of large federal grants or their own resources to build replicas of the bridge of the USS Enterprise, the UCC may occupy several rooms of an existing county governmental center, city hall or school building. Staff members from many departments and other branches of government as well as utility districts, perhaps hospital districts, Red Cross, National Guard and others who have a role in community preparedness and disaster recovery, are all present.

They come prepared, or so they think, to hunker down for what could be days at a time directing efforts to direct evacuations, restore services, provide for the injured and manage any fatalities.

In addition, especially in larger jurisdiction, the media tend to loiter at the UCC, interviewing one another and anyone else who walks by on the way to the restroom. The initial excitement of UCC activation gives way over time to either hectic work or total boredom. When the “all clear” is sounded, most people leave to go home and survey their household situations. They find themselves drained of energy, exhausted and perhaps a bit depressed. In effect, they begin to suffer symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

However, the essence of this article is not about the operations of the UCC per se, but about a critically important component of the working environment when government officials are on “active duty” during an extended emergency.

Thoughts about the welfare of their families never leave the minds of these officials. No matter how “tough” the sheriff or the public works director may appear to be, they worry tremendously over those they love, just like the rest of us. A truly modern organization – whether its facilities are shiny and state of the art or built on foundations laid in the 19th century – will recognize this and take special precautions to look out for the welfare of the dependents of employees who are working during the emergency.

Sheriff deputies, paramedics, public works crews, clerical staff endlessly filling out FEMA reimbursement forms, and many others involved in disaster response, may work 12-hour “Alpha–Bravo” shifts, but if they do not feel that their families are in reasonably safe and secure surroundings, they will not be at their best. This is especially true when the disaster eliminates electrical power, telephone (including cellular) service and other means of contact as may be the case in major hurricanes or earthquakes.

Taking steps to make shelter available for the dependents of emergency team members improves morale, costs little and makes a great difference. The essence of creating a dependent shelter is not rocket science. It involves designating a responsible official in the organization, perhaps the HR Director, to create and manage the dependent facility. Once there is a clear assignment of responsibility, here are some of the basic steps:

1. Make a list of the essentials associated with having and running a center for the sheltering of dependents.

2. Create a small administrative team to be responsible for securing the needed resources. Be specific about the assignments and require timetables for completion.

3. The list includes obvious items such as locating the most secure facility possible, perhaps with help from the city or county public works director or engineer. The facility may already exist or there may be room inside the UCC facility itself for dependents.

4. Estimate the maximum reasonable length of time dependents would need to be at the shelter – from the time the UCC is activated until an all-clear is sounded and deactivation occurs: perhaps three or four days. Reviewing Maslow’s hierarchy of needs would be helpful at this point. Find that college textbook on psychology and dust it off.

5. In cooperation with the sheriff and the chief of fire-rescue, arrange for law enforcement, and a team of paramedics to be located at the shelter. The paramedics will bring with them a basic package of emergency medical supplies.

6. If there is a medical school in the area, perhaps arrangements could be made for third or fourth year medical students to assist. Many may be attending school from out of the area and would appreciate some shelter in trade for some relevant work.

7. Arrange for water in plentiful supply to be available and stockpiled.

8. Arrange for a variety of foods to prepare and serve with paper plates and plastic utensils so dependents and employees at the dependents’ shelter will look back at having had enough food and pleasant food. Twinkies and M&M’s are important sources of psychological nutrition, if not the other kind, during short periods of emergencies. However, no human should be forced to live on junk food, or for that matter, Spam sandwiches for extended periods of time. It has to be a violation of the Geneva Convention.

9. Long periods of confinement, during a hospital stay, during a jail term or while “trapped” in a UCC, focus everyone’s attention on food. Go out of your way to provide clean surroundings for eating, for handling trash, and for making several meals at the UCC memorable and a source of appreciation rather than frustration.

10. Perhaps plan an unexpected food surprise depending on the facility. Perhaps have several staff members dress as chefs or have some white linen tablecloths and candles even if they are serving “beenie weenies.”

11. Bedding is important. Whether cots, blankets, sleeping bags and mattresses are provided by the agency or people are asked to bring their own, provide separate sleeping facilities for men and women (after all, one of the dependents might be a plaintiff’s attorney). Allow children to be with their parents and, to the extent possible, provide some privacy.

12. Even if the agency instructions are for dependents to bring their own bedding, or for that matter their own water and food, assume that not every one will follow the instructions or get the instructions and have an extra supply on hand.

13. The more likely that children will be present, the more important that a supply of games, DVDs (other than The Perfect Storm), books and other recreational or cultural activities be on hand.

14. Many organizations run childcare centers, recreation program and libraries. Include on the team several representatives of these services and use their professional skills during the disaster at the UCC for impromptu story hours, games and other “distractions.” Clearly the children, not to mention the adults, will be worried and afraid. Having some professional support present will make the experience less stressful for everybody.

15. This could take the form, in a larger organization, of an employee assistance counselor or clinical social worker being present at the UCC. Consider creating some kind of “souvenir” of the UCC experience such as t-shirts that say something like “County Emergency Team 2004.”

16. The most elaborate dependent shelter with the best managers is of no use at all if information is not widely distributed telling employees about the existence of the shelter. Ask the employees to register in advance by contacting a responsible person or department such as HR. That way, wild guesses about the number of people attending can be turned into more educated guesses.

17. It is important to gather information about the ages of dependents and any specific medical needs, especially with regard to critical medication. That list of medical needs can also be shared with paramedics in advance. Emphasize the importance that families bring personal medical equipment such as inhalers and their own prescriptions with them to the shelter. However, be prepared when they don’t.

18. What to do with those beloved pets during a disaster is a particularly disturbing subject without a clear answer. Most of the public emergency shelters do not accept pets. That forces many people to make a very difficult choice between abandoning their pets or not evacuating. This may be especially difficult for infirm senior citizens whose pets are more than a cat or dog, but are perhaps regarded as their only true companion. The concern is shared by children, many people who live alone and the periodic HR Doctor.

A basic policy decision has to be made by each agency that it will or will not allow pets in crates or cages to be brought to a dependent shelter. There is no clear and simple answer. Saying “no” does not solve the problem. Saying “yes” opens the door to a menagerie including what could be an array of exotic pets including lizards, snakes, parrots, birds, etc., as well as the more ubiquitous cats and dogs. Kamala, the HR dog, votes to allow cats at shelters. However, I have not told her yet that she is not allowed to vote.

19. Employees with infirm or severely disabled dependents will be especially thankful to know there is a shelter for dependents at or near the UCC. However, depending on the disability, the situation can be made much more complicated.

Dependents with behavioral disorders may find themselves acutely aggravated by being confined to a shelter for days at a time. The results can be difficult for other dependents and other employees to manage.

Employees with very serious medical problems, including those who might be dependent on a respirator or those immediately recovering from surgery or accidents, may find greater safety and security in a hospital or extended care facility than in a general shelter for dependents. Their medical needs during an emergency may be so significant that a paramedic or even experienced family members may not be able to cope. Employees with such special care dependents may already have significant experience in the management of chronic disabilities and may prefer to make other arrangements. If the organization knows of such circumstances in advance, it may be possible for HR or Social Services to intervene with some local hospital or other facility and help arrange for care.

20. Individuals can now buy automatic electronic defibrillators (AEDs) without prescriptions at a drug store near you. Certainly, this medical-marvel tool should be available at the UCC in case of acute coronary distress. As a matter of fact, AEDs should be available in major public buildings in general including libraries, airports, city halls and recreation centers.

21. After the event is over and the shelter has been deactivated, the staff members who helped at the dependent shelter need to be thanked and recognized. They also need to be asked to critique shelter operations so that their experience can be incorporated into a better operation if it has to be activated again in the future.

22. All the planning and all of the effort to make a disaster dependent shelter work is more than made up for when employees call, visit or e-mail after the fact and express their heartfelt appreciation to you.

As an elected or appointed official, you recognized the importance in all of our thinking and acting of security for our families, and you went out of your way to create a shelter in the first place.

A very important responsibility we have as parents, spouses, caregivers or significant others is to shelter and secure those we love. As employers, we can demonstrate that we understand employee worries and needs – especially when we need the employees most, as in disaster emergencies. We can and should take steps to provide some “shelter from the storm.”

Phil Rosenberg


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