Public Works and the current influenza pandemic threat

Christine Walsh
Director of Operations
City of Beloit, Wisconsin

City parks filled with ducks and geese, local poultry farms, family flocks and backyard fowl enthusiasts are all potential outbreak sites for avian flu. Found chiefly in birds the H5N1 virus, which can cause severe disease or death in humans, will require extensive preparations and precautions to avoid escalation of a pandemic. In an October briefing for congressional staff on Capitol Hill, I discussed the role public works faces in preparing for a pandemic flu outbreak.

Public works staff are first-line responders in all emergency situations, including an influenza pandemic. At the same time we will be responding to emergencies, we have the continuous responsibility to keep our communities functioning through maintaining infrastructure, clean water, solid waste disposal and other essential day-to-day operations.

In Beloit, public works has several capabilities that would be implemented either during an avian influenza or influenza pandemic. Rapid Assessment and Debris Management are at the top of the list. Currently as birds die in our parks or in our communities, either park employees or solid waste collectors dispose of dead birds. That would continue during any pandemic. As public works managers, we are responsible for keeping our employees safe. This would become even more important, requiring training for our employees with personal protective equipment and the correct handling techniques.

Also of concern is if a pandemic flu outbreak were to occur, how would that situation affect our daily activities? We are currently trying to evaluate how a trash collector wears a fit test respirator while trying to collect 600-800 stops per day. Would sewer workers and treatment plant operators be required to be equipped with respirators or self-contained breathing apparatus during normal work hours? At this point, public works staff should be working with their state health departments or other state agencies for guidance.

There will also need to be the ability to set up "Zones of Response" similar to safe work zones, only much larger in scope. Public works is very experienced at communicating to the citizens where they can and can't go through signage and detours. The theory is the same when establishing Zones of Response. Included in traffic control is our capability to make all types of signs with sign labs or the knowledge of who can produce signage in a short amount of time. Engineering Services and equipment operators will be an important part of the mortality management plan, not something we normally work with.

Having been born and raised on the world's largest fancy poultry farm, and as a past partner in Walsh Farms, I encouraged lawmakers to ensure that public works employees are in the group of responders who will be first to receive vaccinations should an outbreak occur. We must emphasize the need to train our employees in precautionary practices and develop an extensive response plan within the community and in local regions.

Public works is very different than our counterparts in emergency management. Besides responding to emergencies, we are responsible for the daily management of the country's infrastructure and lifelines. Part of our limitation with any pandemic illness will be workforce availability. In the State of Wisconsin, we can expect 30-40% absenteeism, with 35% of our total populace being affected. Another issue that we can expect not only from the general public, but also our employees, is fear. Consequences of this may include the shortage of materials, possible snow days, along with the financial issues such an event would cause.

We in public works must have more practice exercises for public works staff with emergency responders including fire, police and medical services, as well as agriculture experts. Only by working together can we truly assess the total impact this type of event will have on our communities.

What can we do pre-pandemic? We should be educating our employees on both an avian influenza and influenza pandemic since they will have responsibilities that will need to be accomplished. Within departments, cross training employees, pre-planning reduced services based on priorities, flexible work hours, alternate work sites and working with your vendors all need to be considered as part of your overall emergency and continuing operations plan.

It all boils down to continuity planning—be prepared. Analyze your department, develop your strategy and your plan, then practice, practice, practice.

Christine Walsh can be reached at (608) 364-2929 or walshc@ci.beloit.wi.us.