Episode 6

This podcast is the latest in our series of real-time discussions centering around the COVID-19 response in jurisdictions throughout the United States. In this session, we will focus on the response efforts of two Fire Departments in the State of Ohio; we will interview District Chief David O’Neal, District Chief Hugh Hains,  and Chief Sherman Smith. We will identify how both agencies have had to adapt their response protocols; share lessons learned, best practices and the challenges faced during this unique response effort. We will discuss how they are preparing for the process of re-opening their respective cities and how that planning process is evolving. Finally, we reflect on how their participation in Enhanced All-Hazards Incident Management / Unified Command (MGT314) course prepared their agencies for this response.  


Narrator: Welcome to the Disaster Management podcast series. Each episode features subject matter professionals discussing strategies and techniques for emergency managers and policy makers to consider as they prepare for respond to and recover from disasters. This series is brought to you by Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service in the National Emergency Response and Recovery training Center.

Heather Crites: Howdy and welcome to the next podcast in our COVID-19 response series. Today’s podcast is hosted by Kris Murphy and Heather Crites. My name is Heather Crites. I am a training specialist with the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service and I am primarily responsible for our enhanced all hazards incident management unified command course also known as MGT 314. For those of you listening who are not familiar with MGT 314, this course centers on applying the essential incident command processes required for managing a large scale all hazards incident. Participants exercise as part of an incident management team using the all hazards planning process to manage the response to four different simulation based scenarios.

Kris Murphy: And I am Kris Murphy. Many of you will recognize me from the MGT 314 program as well. I have been a project coordinator with TEEX for about eight years now and have interacted with many of you listening during your week here in College Station. Also joining us today we have District Chief David O’Neil from the Akron Fire Department and District Chief Hugh Haynes with the Cincinnati Fire Department. Welcome gentlemen before you gentlemen introduce yourself I want to give a quick overview of what we are going to talk about today. We first want to hear about how your respective cities and agencies are handling the COVID-19 response and talk about how you have had to adapt to this very unique crisis. We then will dive into how you are facing the prospect of opening your cities back up. And finally we will talk about how the MGT 314 training which you both have attended has played a role in preparing you for this. Chief O’Neil why don’t we start with you.

Dave O’Neil : My name is Dave O’Neill I am the District Chief of Special Operations in Akron Ohio.

Hugh Haynes: And I am Hugh Haynes I am the District Chief of Emergency Management for Cincinnati Ohio

Kris Murphy: Chief O’Neil, walk us through how your city and your agency specifically how your response is going and how you’ve had to adjust your response protocols to keep your personnel safe but able to do their jobs effectively.

Dave O’Neill: So at this point our response is going relatively well. That wasn’t always the case. In the very beginning we had a lot of things that we needed to figure out to get this thing moving. We set our department DOC up on march 13th, so from a state perspective we got up and running relatively quickly. We did a lot of heavy lifting early on and frankly at this point we’re just power we’re letting things run. Letting things just do what they do. Obviously for us this was a different crisis that fell outside of what we would call normal. A normal disaster response. Thankfully we already had a playbook in place to refer to so we followed it. We use smart objectives mixed with some adapting and adjusting to make it work. We also relied on a lot of smart practices. We looked at other areas to see what they were doing, adapted it to our organization. We were not afraid to steal a good idea. And many of the things that we’ve encountered to make things safe for our members have been experienced by other fire chiefs just from you know the conversations I’ve had. PPE obviously being the major one. Trying to find PPE, finding other options for PPE has been challenging. In Akron we shook down the community. We went around and encouraged people to give us donations. That’s how we acquired a lot of what we have. We’ve had to do things like make changes to our dispatch policy, temperature screenings, setting up these decon schedules for stations and trucks and implementing a workforce protection plan that’s focused on social distancing in our stations and establishing quarantine and isolation policies for exposed or potentially exposed members. Administrative leave that’s kind of been the toughest part. We’ve turned to technology to help us meet the social distancing requirements. Using things like WebEx or zoom which has been a challenge because they don’t always work way they’re supposed to work but we manage. Thats kind of has gotten us to where we are at currently.

Hugh Haynes: Hey chief can I ask you a question? You were talking about PPE earlier. Are you guys wearing N95?

Dave O’Neil: So we are and as I mentioned we didn’t have an inventory of N95’s at all. We got them from the communit. We have a strict reuse policy and we have started just recently sending them out for decon. What are you guys doing down there?

Hugh Haynes: That’s why I asked. We couldn’t get any N95’s. Everybody that had them obviously you know as soon as we found out they were in short supply nobody wanted to cough them up. But what we did have old PS1000 I think they’re called. They’re the ones that we use for overhaul after a fire. We had trouble for the first couple of weeks getting disposable gowns. The hospitals had them but we were having trouble getting our hands on any. But what we had was Tyvek suits so we were by necessity putting our guys in in a higher level of protection then what the CDC said was qualified. So that was a happy accident I guess it worked out well for us. How many exposures if you guys had?

David O’Neil: As far as positives, we’ve had 12 positives, and those all kind of came early on. Right now we’re doing a little bit better most of everybody’s back to work. But you know we did a whole installation and quarantine policy as well. And it was funny because our positives all seem to work together so they just gave it to each other. We had certain shifts on certain stations that almost all came back positive. That just speaks to how easy this is transmitted.

Hugh Haynes: You said you’re all back to work though they’re good they’re healthy?

David O’Neil: They’re good, their all back to work everybody’s healthy and we’re kind of on the other side of it so just like the state’s kind of done with the whole trying to flatten the curve I mean we tried to flatten our own organizational curve honestly and it seems like it’s work but the quarantine and the isolation is what hurt us because we put guys off that worked with the people that were positive for 14 days.

Hugh Haynes: We did a similar thing. Yeah it was semi miraculous. We’ve only had two positives that we know of. You’re fighting the ghosts. It’s hard to tell whether they got it right at the grocery store or at work. I am told she Smith is on the call now.

Sherman Smith: So my name Sherman and I am a Division Chief for a municipal fire department at Southwest Ohio. We call it Little Town we live in Cincinnati and I have been in the fire service for a little better than thirty years at this particular fire department for just over 26 years.

Kris Murphy: We were just talking about how your respective agencies have had the kind of zig and zag and adjust your protocols to get through this.

Sherman Smith: Okay

Hugh Haynes: Other things that we’ve done we did some administrative changes. We have four-person staffing on all of our companies and we tried to limit the number of folks that came in contact with patients to two. That helped us stretch our PPE. One of the things that we did and we’re still doing is every day we send out an IAP, the fire chief sends it out. My group of folks kind of puts it together with whatever’s new.

David O’Neil: Yeah I’ll add to that. Our particular office has been effective in doing is some level of coordination between a different city department. So as you can imagine this pandemic affects a city and like ours in a number of different ways for example the Health Department it’s a lead agency in dealing with this particular situation what we have try to do especially as a Fire Department is to sort of stay in our lane and support those other departments. So the Health Department is going to be interested or in knowing about where the positive people live and they are doing the contact tracing and follow-up with them as far as the progress of the disease and then the fire department has an interest because from time to time as they feel sick or become more symptomatic they’ll call us and so we’ve had a good partnership and working with the Health Department and actually putting those addresses into our CAD, the CAD was important. Our call takers at the 911 centers that are important on the front end because they initially helped in screening the people. Now of course they’re guiding them toward what we want them to do which is when what they call 911 they’re telling us what their symptoms are but we’re also asking that they meet our members at the front door so if we don’t have to enter their apartment or their house or wherever they live but we don’t. We meet them at some place where the air exchange is great and then we begin the treatment there. So that’s just an example of how different ways did working with the different departments and doing the part that relates to us this helped us to have a kind of a good attack of this thing. You mentioned too that the health department’s the lead for you down there which is the same for us up here. The health department’s the lead. It’s a little different than how any type of a disaster if you will normally goes because typically our Emergency Management Agency is the lead. For us that’s proven to be a little bit challenging. I think just goes of where allegiances lie with public health as far as it seems like it’s more towards hospitals than it is the public safety, have you guys kind of felt that same thing down there?

Sherman Smith: I’m glad you said that. So we have a different challenge. We’re a big small town inside of a bigger County. There’s 40 or better smaller municipalities. There’s a big difference with the city in that County so the county functions like they function with their own health department some of those cities also have their own health departments as well but obviously then we have a health department and those offices the health department for the city and how depart for the county are less than a couple of miles from each other. It’s really weird as far as the jurisdiction is concerned. So the pathway for getting things done through the Health Department goes through the County MA for the county and then through obviously the city for the city. You know what we have found is that those two entities have struggle and then the hospital is organized and with the health collaborative that gets all of them and their interest together and they sort of operate in their own thing. And early on we asked this question at the state level we talked to some folks that we know at the state AOC and they said that pretty much that’s a pervasive problem that the health departments and hospitals don’t talk to each other and then the health department’s don’t also talk to each other as much. So I was learning that it was not unique to Cincinnati but it is just historic. We have relationships with both and so we work on projects across the hospitals across the county health departments and so we’re working through it but it is not it’s not like how we work with say the police department or our relationship with the health department.

Heather Crites: What would you say your greatest challenge has been with this response?

Sherman Smith: For Cincinnati is all I can speak for, our role as emergency managers is to capture critical information and redistribute it to the people that need to know it. What we have found is that the other people involved in the response are not entirely certain what their roles are on the frontlines because they have been so trained on floods and tornados and things like that. And it’s just kind of like Chief Haynes said earlier, this is sort of an invisible monster if you will, so nobody knows exactly what should I be doing now. What we have found is that there’s a lot of replication. We’ve been asked to do a lot of things that we’re not conventionally asked to do in in the setting here, so that’s a little bit of a challenge.

Hugh Haynes: Especially this first couple of days, Chief O’Neil you want to jump in on that. You had said earlier that the initial couple of days proved to be challenging every time somebody new came into the EOC we had to teach a lot of folks what they were doing. When there’s a tornado you can actually go physically walk to the spot where the tornado came through and you can say okay I can recognize this and when we get these seven things done we will have finished our job here. Fighting the ghosts the first couple of days until we kind of got our heads wrapped around, okay where are we going to get our data from, what are we what are our goals, you know what are our objectives, those were some real challenges early on.

David O’Neil: I agree with you totally on the fighting a ghost thing. Typically when we’re responding to a crisis it’s something that has a finite duration like you can see progress being made and with this one we couldn’t see progress being made. The progress we could see was us getting things into place for our folks different policies. As far as progress on the response or the mitigation yeah not so much so that was super challenging from an organizational perspective. I think Heather mentioned greatest challenges. For us it’s just like everybody else it was PPE, that was the biggest challenge. Trying to figure out how we were going to protect our folks. And the vetting of PPE people come out of the woodwork that had a connection of somebody that could get you masks from somewhere. None of them delivered. Because we, you know we tried a couple of them they didn’t deliver. And I can honestly say through our normal procurement processes with people we have established relationships with we have not gotten one single item. We have an inventory of about 3,500 N95s right now and those are all donated from the community from different businesses. Fortunately we met with our City Council’s and they released funds to do those sorts of purchases right out of the gate. We had a little bit of miscalculation when it came to gowns because we figured hey we put these our folks in Tyvek suits they’ll be happy and they actually just wanted the gowns you know the throw away gowns. I really do believe it may have come down to what day you started on that made that either impossible or difficult. Sometimes you take things in stride. We had a plan for how to get these N95’s to our members, and he says hey why don’t we just use this 83,000 unit and use a P100 filters and then we talked to our medical director and he says hey you can just keep using those over again until you until it’s hard to breathe out of them but it was totally something we hadn’t anticipated. We were able to kind of leverage what we had in stock for some other things that we needed you know like hand sanitizer and you know think nature so it just it just worked out. But we weren’t doing things and I think that doing of things it was part of what helped us to get kind of in motion on some of the things that we needed to prepare ourselves which we’ve come out very well. I mean if we two have two exposures that we believe that those two exposures were absolutely not on a job so we almost feel that we have a hundred percent of our members that have been responding to runs and we’ve not had one instance in a field. We have a good relationship with the health department and that we have they’re like we help them with our contact tracing, so when we have a significant event a run where versus test comes back positive we go back and we look at the procedure it pull that run we look at what the members did we talk to them and we find out did you have a significant exposure? Well did they follow the policy and ninety-eight percent of those cases and they have led the negative tests when our members were tested and had the ability getting back to work so that part has worked really well.

Sherman Smith: So one of the big surprises for me was as this was gearing up we start preparing for a call volume that was just going to go through the roof just really ramping up. It’s gone just the other way. Our call volumes gonna affect our Police Department for the year is ten thousand calls down compared to last year which is an amazing number and we’re down significantly as well we did not see that coming honestly.

Kris Murphy: Gentlemen in the when you took the class here the instructors always talk about the rest life you know you don’t know what you don’t know – you don’t know. Have you had some red slice moments over the last five or six weeks?

David O’Neil: One of the things that came out was early on we knew that the data that we were getting on how we expected this thing to grow, we knew that that data was bad but it was the only data that we had. And we were planning for having somewhere in the neighborhood of 4,000 to few hospital beds. We found a place to build one of those pop-up hospitals and I remember the first day that we all got together at the convention center here in Cincinnati. There were a lot of people from a lot of departments and a lot of, the National Guard was there the Corps of Engineers was there that the health collaborative our medical director was there and the young lady from the health collaborative who was our data person she said we’re counting on in having 4,000 beds too few and that’s based on information we know to be bad. We all kind of looked at each other and that would but it’s what we had. Chief you got more?

Sherman Smith: Some of the information that now we need it we didn’t really have a way to process it. You know way to keep track of certain things so we had to sort of build those on the fly. You know who would think that she would consecutively 50 days in a row be doing IAP’s. Never in my career would I imagine I’d be involved in building a pop-up hospital in a convention center so those are just things that you never imagine and you had to sort of reinvent yourself on the fly while you while you were doing that.

Heather Crites: We’ve talked about so of your challenges what have some of the success that you’ve had Chief O’Neill?

David O’Neil: The biggest success was how quickly we were able to stand up our unified command here in the city. We all know that our PD brothers and sisters aren’t as schooled and in the incident management system so we thought it was going to be a challenge. They came and they leaned on us they were eager to learn and they just really grabbed onto it and they seemed super engaged which was great. Just prior to this crisis we were all set to conduct unified command type training here in the city. So it was on our agenda and then all the sudden this comes up and we were forced to use inified command. So we’ve worked together well it’s actually been a very good partnership so I would say that was probably one of our biggest successes here in the city.

Kris Murphy: So I will give you a kudos Chief O’Neil because you and I have worked over the last couple of years to get some of your PD people in here.

David O’Neil: I would say that we’ve spent 20 people between police and fire and we made a strategic push to get some officers there. And it was funny because after a week or so the unified command being stood up lots of people that had been through the class came up and mentioned how much it helped with this incident, having been in that class.

Kris Murphy: Chief Haynes, you would have just gotten home from the class when this started taking place it was fresh in your mind.

Hugh Haynes: We started reaching out to the health department back in January. I actually attended the 314 class with one of the guys who works for the Kettering health collaborative in the Dayton area. And he and I were trading information on the plane ride back, so it was it was pretty fresh and rapidly moving.

Kris Murphy: Chief Smith, you stand up an IMT?

Sherman Smith: Yeah well actually we hired one from Butler County. So it was one of the resources from the state and it was actually a great tool and that a lot of the section heads came from that team and so we matched or married a person from the hospital network and a person from the city. Some times it was several from those groups. The goal it was you know everybody had sort of a piece that they brought to the table and we hired that IMT team as a state resource to just kind of run the lead on just making sure that our battle run up was good and that we were compliant with all the FEMA requests and things of state needed. So that was a is a great tool. Need to be a part of that having never done that before.

Kris Murphy: Chief O’Neil,  did you all have IMT up in Akron?

David O’Neil:  In the traditional sense I would say no but in our own version of that yeah I mean we filled positions internally. I think part of that goes along with this not being a disaster you would experience like a hurricane or a tornado where a lot of our resources were already built in it was just process of managing and making sure we had different safety initiatives in place. So we absolutely filled all the positions on the org chart.

Heather Crites: And as your cities and states begin the process of reopening what does that look like for each of your departments.

Sherman Smith: I’ve heard people describe this is flying an airplane while you’re building it and that’s a pretty good analogy as it relates to what we’re doing. You know the problem with it is, is that there’s not even one person in our city that is alive when we had the Spanish flu right. Nobody has dealt with this sort of a challenge before and so we’re all trying to figure it out. We said hey we’re going to open up the beginning of dealing with just offices and some retail and so you know so tiered opening for us and in Ohio. Each of those will have a different impact. People will have various senses of concern. Some of them are just really want to get back to work so they can pay their next month’s rent or mortgage or a house payment or car payment or what have you. We have the challenge of supporting to reopen right if you want to be positive about that but at the same time cautious we’re still watching the numbers. Were still postured to activate our ACS we’re still advising departments and doing internal audits and advisements on the sort of policies that we ought to have. My division handles special events so they’re already starting to ask a we have our event that we had planned in March or April and there are no clear answers, and the answer that we might come up with today might be different in 30 days it could be different in 60 days and so that’s kind of the challenge of what we’re trying to figure out now. How we responsible reactivate as a city as a fire department as a community and then what do we do if it doesn’t go well? We have to you know plan for that plus all the other things that are looming. This is tornado season and you know extra rain and the river rises and floods and all of those what are those the answers look like overlaid on top of a pandemic and we’re tweaking the plan every day understanding the disaster fatigue is what they’re experiencing right now to keep everybody engaged and aware with a situational awareness high all those are the challenges that we’re trying to work through.

David O’Neil: Well I’ll piggyback onto that the rules just keep changing whether it’s from the state or from the CDC so trying to get a vision of how that opening up looks how that’s going to go has been challenging. He mentioned disaster fatigue you know I call it mission fatigue it’s all the same. I’m worried about our folks in public safety having that just to where they start to get not really doing the things that they need to be doing to protect themselves. I also don’t want them thinking that just because things are opening up doesn’t mean that we should be easing up from a public safety standpoint.

Hugh Haynes:  And that’s kind of in our DNA most things that we go through have an end. We can see oh it’s you know the fire starting to go out the wreck is starting to get cleared away and we equate that with we’re almost done. That’s a big concern that a lot of us have. You know our guys might look at all we’re opening up the state again as meaning all were done.

David O’Neil: And probably one of my biggest concerns and it’s going to be your concern down there as well, is just how is this impacting revenue from a from a city standpoint what’s that going to do to your operating budget or your department budget moving forward. We’ve already hit the brakes on everything here in our city so they can kind of evaluate and see what the damage is before we start moving forward with anything that was previously planned.

Heather Crites: I can really relate to the comment about just because we’re reopening doesn’t mean that this is finished or that this is over you know. I have two teenagers at home and I keep trying to have the conversation with them just because you can see your friends a little bit more we still have to be very cautious. My daughter had to go get gas on the vehicle today and I said you’ve got to wear gloves and you don’t get back in your car with your gloves on.

David O’Neil: You know all these new normals that that have popped up that we really didn’t want anything to do with but now they’re here.

Kris Murphy: In preparing for your next big event the next big thing you know we’re looking at your hurricane season down here which is on everybody’s mind, but your next big event what’s changed in your thinking and how you’re gonna approach that.

Sherman Smith: Well for me one thing I appreciate is that you don’t get to just do one emergency at one time right? So they don’t talk to each other they will double-booked you so be prepared for anything honestly pandemic was not on my was not on my schedule for 2020. I was ready for flood, ready for tornado, ready for active shooter, but did not have anything scheduled for a pandemic. So now how do you help someone how do you embrace someone who just lost a family member or their home when you’re supposed to socially isolate. You know how do you work on digging through the remnants of somebody’s home looking helping to look for pictures or important papers and socially isolated at the same time so just you know understand that you don’t get to just do one thing at one time. How having people understand how the big system works and then making application to the various problems as they come up is definitely the direction that we need to head in terms of training.

Davis O’Neil: I’ll echo that. Every one of these you know what they call the Black Swan events thats happened during my career and like chief Smith I’ve been around 30 years, so something comes out of that the changes in the way we do everything and pandemic wasn’t on the list. But neither was 9/11 neither was Hurricane Katrina. It’s on the list now and we’ll be ready for the next one for sure.

Kris Murphy: Both of your departments have sent folks to the MGT 314 that we talked about earlier and Chief O’Neill you touched on it a little bit, but how do you think the training you went through here helped prepare you for this moment.

David O’Neil: Just getting to see it while it’s actually working. You know we all we’ve all seen the planning P before but we’ve never worked through the planning P the way you work through it when you’re at and into 314 class, and that that really to me made it make sense. And somehow I became the resident expert and so when this came you know right away hey you’re the planning officer figure all this out for us. But just having other folks on PD and FD that have gone through they caught on easily they remembered. So I mean that was a big plus it really made things transition smoother. 100% it made a difference in our response.

Hugh Haynes: My experience was similar to what chief just said. We brought in the IMT and we started working on building that that pop-up hospital. It was just immediately I recognized oh yeah okay I get this. And when I had people around me who didn’t know what was going on it was easy to oh yes so here let me tell you what’s happening here and here’s what’s about to happen. It just made it a lot more natural kind of a flow.

Sherman Smith: I would say that that class is a nice bridge from tabletop to reality. It’s just the way that the day flows. Understanding how some of them have various levels of complexity and when you’re in a meeting and then you get pulled out to do a briefing and then take heat from the cameras the questions you know being shot at you it’s just nice to have that simulated so that what it’s happening in real life and it did but it’s not the first time you experience it. And so your ability to figure out on the fly is a lot more robust because you’ve experienced it. The simulation that happens at that class I think really helps prepare you for that you’re you to your first time being the lead on it in real life.

Heather Crites: Gentlemen I do want to thank you for taking the time for being with us today and talking with us to each of you and t-pain’s we’ll start with you what final words of wisdom do you have for the folks that are currently out there working this response.

Hugh Haynes: Wow words of wisdom. Remain diligent. You know it’s been clear that all of the things you know the really simple things that we’ve done right wash your hands stay away from each other coughing to your elbow, those things have really been successful and get on top of my mountain and scream at everybody that don’t stop doing those things.

David O’Neil: I will be brief my words of wisdom are to be positive don’t test positive. That’s what I keep telling my guys around here. Just trust the processes that are in place. We have things that are in place we may have to tweak them a little bit we may have to fine-tune them but the foundation’s been laid and from the sound of things both organizations have done exactly that. Both have done a great job so- kudos to you folks down there in Cincinnati chiefs.

Sherman Smith: Yeah appreciate that. Yeah the one thing I would say, is this really goes for the whole process, is just get over yourself right, because everybody is afraid everybody is concerned everybody is worried that they’re not doing the right thing, but there’s a lots of tools that are there and every thought every idea matters and so when somebody is contributing toward fixing the problem or thinking through the prom or just mentions the thing that maybe they think nobody else has thought about it all helps. That’s that system that the Chief O’Neil was talking, about trust that that that works. But it only works if everybody contributes to it. If everybody speaks up if they see something say something to the group and even if you’re not the person that is the lead in that particular thing at that particular time, your contribution helps towards solving the problem overall. Just another way maybe thinking outside the box that allows for us to take a little bit different perspective on the problem we’re dealing with to be able to handle it successfully, I would say hey just be a part of the solution overall.

Kris Murphy: It sounds like the citizens in both your communities should be very proud of you guys you sound like you’ve got it under control you’re focused looking forward and kudos to all of you.

Heather Crites: We appreciate you taking the time to speak with us regarding this pandemic and the response and thank you to all of your first responders for their dedication and countless hours during this time.

Narrator:  Thank you for listening to the Disaster Management Podcast Series brought to you by Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service and the National Emergency Response and Recovery Training Center. If you have any questions or ideas for future episodes please contact [email protected] or visit teex.org for information about training near you.