Emergency Planning and the Coronavirus

Washington Road, March 2020 /Photo:Rob Papke

In many ways, Mt. Lebanon Emergency Management has been ready for the coronavirus pandemic since 2008. Back then, the world was worrying about the avian flu, a virus carried by birds. The emergency management platoon, a division of the Mt. Lebanon Fire Department, put together a plan to ensure what it calls “continuity of operations” if the disease became a pandemic and hit the United States.

Luckily, the disease never became an issue. Emergency management continued with its regular periodic training, including annual sessions with municipal staff, short drills involving St. Clair Hospital, Medical Rescue Team South Authority (MRTSA) and the Mt. Lebanon School District. Staff is routinely certified through the National Incident Management System, which is part of the Federal Emergency Management Association. Every three years, emergency management runs a comprehensive com-munity drill that involves all community partner organizations. Recent topics have included active shooter situations, a helicopter crash and a large-scale chemical release that tested the surge capacity of St. Clair Hospital.

Fast-forward to January of this year. The emergency management platoon, led by Deputy Fire Chief Chris Buttlar and staffed with Lieutenants Larry Celender and Lee McCarthy, pulled out the avian flu pandemic plan, reviewed it and updated it to apply to reports that a new virus may be headed our way.

The earliest efforts included the stockpiling of personal protective equipment, such as N95 masks, to keep firefighters safe when out on calls in the public. 

From there, the team convened a task force with community partners, including senior municipal staff, police, public information, information technology, St. Clair Hospital, MRTSA and the school district. At a meeting the first week of March, the team shared resources, answered each other’s questions and brainstormed ideas for communications.

The next day, emergency management and public information put together an action plan consisting of trigger points. For example, what would we do when cases came to Allegheny County? To Mt. Lebanon? What if there were so many cases in Mt. Lebanon that first responders became ill and we only had half a staff?

The team put together a six-stage plan that included operational changes, such as how much staff to send inside residents’ homes, what equipment should be used and when they might have to operate remotely. The plan also included emergency communications at each level of infection. The plan passed muster with Municipal Manager Keith McGill and the Mt. Lebanon Commission.

As the disease found its way to our area, the team stayed one step “above” the infection level. Buttlar notes that disaster plans must always be adjusted, as reality always seems to be different from what you imagine will happen. “We apply what makes sense,” he says.

As of this writing, the story is not over, but when it is, emergency management will have what it calls a “hot wash,” a meeting when everyone involved in the planning and operations will convene to go over what worked, what didn’t and what we need to do differently next time, while hoping next time happens in someone else’s lifetime.

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