In pandemic, old lessons restated

Before you can have continuity of operations, you need a little continuity of policy.

If you can tear yourself away from the enlightening discussions on Twitter, I recommend two documents, both of which have been out for about a week now.

One is really a set of three documents — that’s the Exercise Starter Kit for Preparedness in a Pandemic. FEMA made it available to emergency managers across the country. Administrator Pete Gaynor, in an open letter to emergency managers at the non-federal levels, noted that this year’s potential hurricane responses will overlay the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. How do you deal with that double whammy?

I read the Sample Facilitator Guide — well, skimmed it. It gives instructions on how to conduct a planning workshop plan for emergency response in an area where, in a sense, there is already an emergency. You could substitute for words like “hurricane season approaching” with your own agency’s what-ifs.

Structured planning for potentially bad situations may not be a new idea, but a lot of scrambling has occurred at every level of government since March. The FEMA guide strikes me as adaptable to a range of missions, not just emergency response.

Gaynor said this to the state, local and tribal emergency managers: “I ask all of you to review your planning, to include emergency operations, mass care, evacuation, continuity, resource management, mutual aid, logistics, public information, and recovery considerations against our ongoing COVID-19 response.”

Like, for example, what if a nursing home needs evacuation or other emergency help, and it’s also a locus of the virus?

Another document worth some time: Last week’s “appendix” to the big March report from the Cybersecurity Solarium Commission. The appendix describes two phenomena. Namely that the pandemic has itself spawned new and creative cybersecurity attack vectors, such as home routers and still-better phishing emails. And that the pandemic parallels the cybersecurity threat in that both are severe tests of national resiliency.

Read more: Tom Temin Commentary

These findings support the commission’s many earlier recommendations regarding the federal workforce, the need for digital modernization, and the urgency of a coordinated federal approach to cyber.

In speaking with one of the commission’s co-chairs, Maine Senator Angus King (I), I joked that my own response on the first stay-at-home order in Maryland was to stop at the liquor store for a fresh handle of gin, then at the ATM for a wad of (now spent) cash, then to the gas station to fill up my motorcycle. You might say I’m not a particularly skilled prepper.

King is a strong proponent of the planning approach.

“We need some people with vivid imaginations saying, ‘Well if I were an adversary here’s what I would do.’ And then we have to figure out how to counter it.” He added, “Planning, preparation and structure is really important.”

Something in all of this aroused a memory. Pandemic, germs, foreign pathogens have threatened before. President George W. Bush famously launched a  National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza. It was released in May 2006 after several months of work and the scare from an Asian bird flu.

The president wrote then of the pandemic threat, “Our efforts require the participation of, and coordination by, all levels of government and segments of society. State and local governments must be prepared, and my Administration will work with them to provide the necessary guidance in order to best protect their citizens. No less important will be the actions of individual citizens, whose participation is necessary to the success of these efforts. Our Nation will face this global threat united in purpose and united in action in order to best protect our families, our communities, our nation, and our world from the threat of pandemic influenza.”

In 2016, as widely reported, the National Security Council completed a “playbook” for the Obama administration called, “Early Response to High-Consequence Emergency Infectious Disease Threats and Biological Incidents.” It was based partly on lessons learned from the 2014 Ebola outbreak.

I doubt the Obama administration paid any attention to the Bush-era plan. And by all accounts the Trump administration ignored the Obama-era plan.

Preparedness take planning, whether for a cybersecurity incident that interrupts the grid or the financial system, or a pandemic, or a storm disaster. Before you can have continuity of operations, you need a little continuity of policy.

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