All-Hazards Planning for Public Health Emergency Response: An Interview with Melissa Marquis

This is the second part of a series of interviews with local health department staff who will present at the 2014 Preparedness Summit. Melissa Marquis RN, MS, Public Health Emergency Response Specialist for the West Hartford/Bloomfield Health District, previews her session, “Building Your Toolkit: All-hazards Preparedness Planning Basics and Beyond.” At the session, Melissa will be joined by Sue Monkhern RN, MPH, Public Health Preparedness Program Supervisor at the Washington County Department of Health and Human Services, and Steve Englender MD, MPH, Director of the Center for Public Health Preparedness at the Cincinnati Health Department. 

Melissa Marquis

Melissa Marquis, Public Health Emergency Response Specialist, West Hartford/Bloomfield Health District

Q: Thank you for taking time to speak with us about your workshop at the 2014 Preparedness Summit! Can you give a brief overview what you’ll be covering?

A. The goal of our workshop is to provide a primer on how to build jurisdictional all-hazards preparedness plans for local public health. The first half of the session will go over the basics of public health preparedness planning, including the important areas to cover in your plan and how to structure and organize it. In the second half, the speakers will discuss real-world examples from their jurisdictions and describe how they engaged partners and stakeholders to create successful plans. All of the speakers will bring different perspectives from their unique backgrounds within public health preparedness to provide best practices and lessons learned based on their own experiences. The workshop is designed to be an interactive experience between the speakers and participants and there will be lots of time for questions and discussion.

Q: Why is all-hazards planning for local public health so important?

A: Just about any incident or emergency that occurs within a local jurisdiction has the ability to affect the health status of the residents. Public health is a critical element of both emergency planning and response for any kind of disaster, so we must have good plans in place in order to ensure that our response actions are effective and time-sensitive, no matter what the incident. The great thing about having an all-hazards plan is just that… it is designed to provide procedures or protocols for responding to any type of emergency.  For example, a good all-hazards plan incorporates information about how the local health department would respond in a severe weather event as well as in a large food-borne outbreak and everything in between. It takes into account a wide array of possible response actions and locates them in a single, consolidated plan so that we have a clear path forward in any disaster and don’t need to go searching for information in multiple places. Then, where necessary, we can develop disease or incident-specific annexes to attach to the main plan to guide more specific response actions.

Q: What are some of the challenges you have faced in developing a public health response plans?

A: When I am charged with developing a new response plan, or even just revising a plan based on lessons learned during an event or exercise, I often find that the most challenging aspect is getting the right people involved at the right time during the process. For example, I often rely on the expertise of subject matter experts to help me develop the best response plan possible for the jurisdiction. In order to do that, I need to know who has a specific expertise on the type of response I am planning for, and then I need to know when to engage that person to assist in either writing or editing the plan. Equally as challenging is obtaining stakeholder engagement once the plan is done. Receiving buy-in from the people who have roles or responsibilities defined in the plan is a critical step in the planning process. Without their complete understanding and support, I can’t necessarily count on them during an emergency.

Q: What is one strategy you have used to engage partners to help you plan?

A: Whether I’m making the argument to a person or a group, one key strategy that I use to engage stakeholders is to highlight how my work aligns their interests. They need to understand what is in it for them. I begin by writing a good plan that assigns each role to those who I believe are best able to fill that need. Then I convene and facilitate meetings to try to reach consensus. Many times, I have needed to obtain consensus on a single plan from a group of 20 or more representatives from multiple agencies such as local public health, emergency medical services, hospitals, and mental healthcare providers. Though it frequently takes multiple meetings and iterations of the process or plan, after I address the questions and comments from the group, we can all agree on the best approach.

Q: What are you looking forward to most about this year’s Preparedness Summit?

A: I’ve been attending the Preparedness Summit for the past five years. I think for me, the thing I look forward to most is having the opportunity to network with colleagues from across the country. I love hearing innovative and novel approaches to preparedness and response. This year, I am equally excited to be part of the Summit as a presenter and also as a volunteer staffer at the POD exercise that will be held during one of the lunches.

Join us at the 2014 Preparedness Summit and attend Melissa’s session on Tuesday, April 1 from 1:30 – 5PM. View the full Summit schedule to see what other sessions are in store at this year’s event.

About Rachel Schulman

Rachel Schulman is a Senior Program Analyst for Public Health Preparedness at NACCHO. Her work includes enhancing and recognizing local public health preparedness planning efforts through Project Public Health Ready and building collaborations between public health and emergency management. Twitter: @rms_ph

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