Author(s): Scott Sutherland. Published on May 1, 2020.

Threat and Readiness

The better you understand your community, the better you can manage the next large-scale crisis. Why the time is now to pursue community risk reduction.  
 
BY SCOTT SUTHERLAND

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Blaine County, Idaho, isn't the sort of place readily associated with a global pandemic. Home to the ski town of Ketchum (pop. 2,800), Blaine County is characterized by scenic mountains, vast national forest lands, and a rustic, out-of-the-way charm imbued with the spirit of Ernest Hemingway, who made it his last permanent residence. It’s a 10-hour drive to Portland, nine hours to Las Vegas, and four-and-a-half to Salt Lake City. To get there, as the saying goes, you gotta want it.

As it turns out, plenty of people want it. Blaine County is home to Sun Valley Resort, and thousands flock to the region for the superb skiing and other outdoor pursuits. Wealthy visitors from Los Angeles, Seattle, and New York, as well as international cities, own vacation homes in the area, and jet in and out of the small airport in the nearby town of Hailey. Despite its relative isolation, Blaine County is in fact something of an international hotspot.

Which is why, in March, it began making headlines for having one of the country’s highest per-capita rates of coronavirus infection. Neil Bradshaw, the mayor of Ketchum, didn’t hesitate to make the link between COVID-19 and tourism. “Ketchum is on the front line in Idaho regarding coronavirus,” Bradshaw told the Idaho Statesman. “Why are we on the front line? Because we have tourists, we have second homes. We have continual flow in and out of our community … We’ve gone full circle on that to become a community that is not encouraging travel (right now).” Ketchum wasn’t alone: other international ski destinations, including Vail, Colorado, were identified as coronavirus incubators, where scores of visitors became infected before returning home and spreading the disease.

The threats faced by countless communities around the world reinforce the need for jurisdictions of every size—New York City, Tehran, Rome, Ketchum—to understand those threats and to gather resources with which to address them. Resources don’t always mean money, manpower, and materiel, however: just as important, they can also mean a detailed understanding of a community, from natural and manmade threats like wildfires and industrial facilities, to important demographic components such as a large elderly population or influxes of international visitors. With that understanding—through a process known as community risk reduction, or CRR—communities can better assess the impact of potential risks and how best to minimize them. It also helps them identify the resources needed when problems arise and to assist in recovery in their aftermath.

At the very least, the process helps communities manage a crisis. As the current emergency has demonstrated, it can also help save lives.

COMMUNITY SELF-AWARENESS

The ongoing pandemic is only the latest example of why CRR has become an essential tool for threat assessment, preparation, management, and recovery. The narrative of COVID-19 illustrates how the threat of infectious disease has intensified as the global population grows in number and density, and as people travel and migrate in unprecedented numbers. That global churn is accompanied by an ever-shifting array of viruses and other pathogens, from West Nile and Zika to H1N1 flu, that we unwittingly disperse during our travels. As an Ebola outbreak in Texas in 2014 illustrated, threats we once considered ourselves insulated from, by virtue of oceans or continents, can now readily appear in our midst.

The current pandemic also demonstrates the extent to which communities might have to fend for themselves in an emergency. A dismaying aspect of the COVID-19 story so far has been the large-scale disconnects—between nations, between branches of government, between the federal and state governments—that have hindered preparation for a pandemic and hobbled the response. At the community level, officials have had to contend with conflicting information and acute shortages of essential resources, including personal protective equipment for responders and medical workers. In the United States, the customary top-down administration of a large-scale emergency has only rarely been on display during the coronavirus response. Many communities, desperate for any kind of coordinated action, could only wait for assistance as the number of stricken people increased, while others improvised solutions that in some cases put responders, health care workers, or citizens at risk.


People in Sari, Iran, pray over the body of a COVID-19 victim prior to burial. (Getty Images)

For all of these reasons, experts say, communities need a plan of their own to help them address the next pandemic, or whatever form the next widespread threat takes. The new NFPA 1300, Standard on Community Risk Assessment and Community Risk Reduction Plan Development, for example, helps communities identify and prioritize risks and take steps to reduce and manage them. “We know of a number of communities with risk assessments in place, and they've found them to be valuable during this outbreak,” said Chelsea Rubadou, a community risk reduction strategist at NFPA, in a recent NFPA Journal podcast on the COVID-19 response.

Risk assessments provide safety officials with demographic information such as the age, race, and economic status of residents, along with their geographic distribution, a feature that includes the locations of nursing homes or assisted living facilities. (The New York Times has reported that at least 20 percent of the coronavirus deaths in the US have occurred among residents of these facilities.) Bradshaw, the mayor of Ketchum, said his community used this kind of information when it enacted a temporary construction ban during the outbreak; a large pool of retirees and older second-home owners in Blaine County meant there were many people vulnerable to COVID-19 complications. “We introduced a number of measures to protect these people, starting with an emergency health order,” Bradshaw told NFPA Journal. “We added the building ban because a lot of the construction workers come from outside the county, and there are risks associated with that kind of exposure. We’re just starting to relax the ban, but we still have a number of strict protocols in place.”

THE ‘CULTURE OF RESCUE’

Additionally, the demographic data provided by a risk assessment can be overlaid with economic and civic data, such as whether the community is dominated by a single industry or is home to a large number of college students. Buildings can be catalogued for easier identification of sites for temporary hospitals, health testing, and other purposes. Existing threats can also be factored in, such as whether the community is near chemical processing facilities or is prone to wildfires.

“The standard is broad on purpose,” said Rubadou. “A lot of people have requested a checklist or template to follow for CRR and the community risk assessment, but each community is so unique that it would be really difficult to provide a template broad enough to cover all the threats faced by every community. A threat like a pandemic should be considered, and probably will be considered, more often than it has been.”

Other NFPA documents can help communities manage crises as well. NFPA 1600, Standard on Continuity, Emergency, and Crisis Management, is designed to help users evaluate and prioritize their essential functions and plan, as best they can, for possible emergencies. The document, which was recognized by the 9/11 Commission as the country’s national preparedness standard, is widely used by private public organizations on a local, regional, national, and global basis. The standard has been adopted by the US Department of Homeland Security as a voluntary consensus standard for emergency preparedness. The principles in NFPA 3000™ (PS), Standard for an Active Shooter/Hostile Event Response (ASHER) Program, can also be applied broadly—utilizing what the standard aptly refers to as a “whole community approach”—to create an all-hazards protocol that can address a range of threats, including a pandemic.

As vital as community-level preparation will be to manage the next emergency, experts say those efforts will mean more if they’re accompanied by a greater sense of public responsibility. “It's fair to say we entered this pandemic largely as a culture of rescue,” Karen Berard-Reed, an NFPA community risk reduction strategist, told the NFPA Journal podcast. “It’s an unintended consequence of something that's going really well—we have this wonderful system of first responders ready to assist with virtually any emergency ... but it's also led to some apathy on the part of the public when it comes to prevention.”


A passerby encounters COVID-19 graffiti on a street in Berlin. (Getty Images)

Ignoring prevention, or ceding the responsibility to others, can result in hazards growing out of control, Berard-Reed said, leading to unnecessary injuries and deaths that afflict civilians and responders alike. “We need to get back to that place where people take more responsibility for the prevention of the issue in the first place—in [the COVID-19] crisis, we now have this exclamation point on the fact that every single person plays a role in community health and safety. We truly have this opportunity to shift from the culture of rescue to a culture of prevention … when we eventually emerge from this crisis, we might have a different view of what our first responders are there for, and [we can give] them more of an opportunity to engage in the risk reduction process rather than having to focus so much energy on responding to the needs of the community.”

As they’ve done for some time now, world health experts suggest there’s little time to waste. A glance at the global outbreaks and advisories tracked by the Centers for Disease Control in late April seems to support that: measles in the US, yellow fever in Ethiopia, Lassa fever in Nigeria, dengue fever in Asia and the Pacific Islands. Not the stuff of pandemics, perhaps, but indicators that the global petri dish is teeming, and primed for opportunity.

SCOTT SUTHERLAND is executive editor at NFPA Journal. Top photograph: Getty Images