PANDEMIC PREPAREDNESS SUMMIT SUMMARY
The Federal Communications Commission's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau hosted a Summit on Pandemic Preparedness on Thursday, September 18, 2008.
The Summit focused on communications response for healthcare officials and first responders in preparation for a pandemic. Guest speakers and two panel discussions highlighted ways that communications could be expanded and enhanced in response to a pandemic and how the communications industry will have an instrumental role in such a response.
Kevin Yeskey, M.D., Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), spoke about current HHS initiatives and programs that focus on preparations in the event of a national pandemic crisis. Dr. Yeskey highlighted developing technologies that HHS is sponsoring, including ways to produce patients' health records electronically for easier accessibility to healthcare professionals across the country.
Dana Shaffer, Chief of the FCC's Wireline Competition Bureau, discussed the FCC's Rural Telehealth Pilot Program. This program will assist healthcare providers in rural areas by providing funding for the establishment of broadband networks. Please see the Rural Telehealth Pilot Program website.
PANEL ONE: RESPONSE AGENCIES
This panel consisted of emergency preparedness officials from state and federal governments. The panel was presented with a fictional pandemic scenario: a strain of Avian flu had rapidly spread throughout major cities in the United States via human contact. The panelists then discussed and debated various methods of responding to the fictional pandemic. First, the panelists discussed the ways that their respective organizations would respond to the pandemic, which had a fictional status of Phase 5 (see the World Health Organization's definition of pandemic phases. The panelists then discussed their recommendations for containing and managing the pandemic crisis.
Several recommendations were made by the panelists, including:
- Disseminate accurate information to the public. Misinformation during a pandemic is a major concern. As Patrick McCrummen of the American Red Cross noted, in a disaster, information can be communicated and interpreted incorrectly, which might obstruct response and/or restoration efforts. Panelists stressed the need for emergency preparation efforts to include messages that can be broadcast over numerous media, including radio, broadcast, and social-networking sites via internet protocol (IP). Mr. McCrummen noted that the American Red Cross has previously relayed information via social-networking sites and reached a larger group of the population than they would have via traditional media.
- Alleviate network congestion. The panel recognized that the "worried well," citizens who are not sick but need access to information, can create congestion on emergency networks. Deputy Chief Charles Dowd of New York City Police Department suggested promoting use of non-emergency, informational numbers. New York City uses 3-1-1 as a non-emergency, informational telephone number that citizens can call for information and status updates. Having the 3-1-1 number available offers information-seeking users an alternative to 9-1-1, thus alleviating network congestion and expediting the delivery of emergency services. Other panelists also noted that prioritizing IP communication networks may be necessary during a pandemic because the workforce will be telecommuting. As Dr. Ivan Gotham of NY Department of Health recommended, essential personnel may require priority access to the internet if network congestion is an issue during a pandemic or other mass public health crisis.
- Coordinate on multiple levels and across agencies. Preparation for a pandemic should involve government agencies from all levels (federal, state, local) and should include local organizations (such as Red Cross) and local businesses. As Captain Deborah Levy of the CDC stated, the response for a pandemic will start at the local level. Thus, it is important to include community groups at the local level in preparation planning. Kathy Robinson of the National Association of State Emergency Medical Services Officials (NASEMSO) also stressed participation in preparation exercises involving all levels of government entities.
PANEL TWO: COMMUNICATIONS INDUSTRY
The second group of panelists represented the communications industry. This panel focused on industry response to a potential mass sheltering-in-place situation where employees may need to telecommute.
Several themes were repeated by the panelists:
- Current Continuity of Operations Plans (COOP) plans account for pandemics. The communications industry has developed such plans for disaster situations. These plans incorporate preparations for a mass public health crisis where social-distancing/sheltering-in-place may be required.
- Prioritizing communications traffic to satisfy shifting needs. During a pandemic, much of the workforce will be required to telecommute. Industry representatives said that traffic flow patterns are a daily issue for them and that the communications infrastructure should be capable of handling increased usage during mass telecommuting. However, as Robert Mayer of the U.S. Telecom Association recommended, network management procedures may be needed to avoid over-stressing networks.
- Coordination among the public and private sector. The panelists suggested that further coordination is necessary among the public, private and healthcare sectors during response and recovery missions. Brian Allen of Time Warner Cable stressed that the private sector needs to be included in preparations for disaster situations. In pandemic preparations, industry should be included in planning because the communications infrastructure will be essential to continuity of operations in a social-distancing/sheltering-in-place situation. Panelists also stressed the importance of cross-segment coordination so that messages crafted for delivery over media outlets encourage responsible use of communications services.