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Essential Personnel: The Backbone of Disaster Response

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Judith Weshinskey-Price
May 29, 2015

Maize julyEssential personnel, those who must come to work to make sure essential functions continue in times of disaster, are the foundation of disaster response and citizen safety. these include police officers, firefighters, telecommunication staff, road crews, city management and many others who perform duties that require them to leave their families and homes during the most serious events. Essential personnel are not only essential to disaster response but their families are also personally impacted. As such they face significant barriers to fulfilling their duty but organizations can take steps to reduce these barriers and increase the provision of essential services.

Among the challenges faced by these public servants are personal victimization. These individuals, in times of disaster, experience human conflict between work responsibilities and concern for family and friends who may be victims. There may also be challenges with transportation, finding appropriate child care and other necessities due to loss of infrastructure. Each of these barriers may cause an employee to become distracted while performing essential functions. this could result in a loss in quality and safety levels. Government and other organizations rely heavily on essential personnel to provide services that keep citizens safe and secure. If essential personnel are not able to report to work or are distracted at work, then both the organization and the citizens suffer.

It is important for all organizations that provide essential services to recognize the benefit of helping personnel overcome these barriers. Organizations can offer training and support to essential personnel to reduce barriers; allow them to report for duty more often and be less distracted. Providing training on disaster preparation not only for the employee at work but for the employee and their family at home can reduce the chances that personnel and their families will be victimized by the disaster. Preparations include developing a disaster kit, boarding windows and all the other actions that can prevent damage and lower chances of injury.

If the organization is able to do it, providing supplies or monetary assistance to essential personnel that cannot always afford to take these actions themselves would help reduce barriers. Understanding that employees will not be able to report to work if they do not have child care or transportation is important. Planning to assist in providing these necessities during a disaster will increase the reliability of essential personnel.

Organizations also must take into consideration that not everyone will have the same challenges or needs. Offering boilerplate training or services will only address barriers experienced by some employees. When preparing training or choosing what services to offer, organizations must understand what their particular employee group most needs. Organizations should look at the demographics of their essential personnel and work with them to understand specific needs. Gender, socioeconomic status, age, marital status, and many other social and personal characteristics impact the types of barriers that essential personnel may experience. For example, a group of employees who are generally single and childless may not really need child care as an offering but may appreciate assistance with transportation. Those who have elderly parents may need training on how to address elder care during a disaster. Tailoring the training and services to the specific needs of the employee can significantly reduce the barriers for that specific group of essential personnel.

Organizations ask much of their essential personnel when they require them to respond during a disaster event regardless of challenges those personnel may personally face. While those who accept a position that is considered essential should understand they made the commitment to fulfill that role, it can sometimes be harder to do so. Organizations that assist their essential personnel and make an effort to remove barriers for them will not only be contributing to the overall welfare of the organization and the citizens it serves but also to the welfare of those essential employees. This will increase employee and citizen safety as well and will generate increased employee loyalty and dedication as they experience an organization that contributes to their success.


Author: Judith Weshinskey-Price has 18 years’ experience in public safety communications and is a doctoral candidate with Jacksonville State University’s Department of Emergency Management. She can be contacted at [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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