Disasters can pose a threat to public health both during the event and long in the wake of its aftermath. Natural disasters can disrupt utilities and cut people off from fresh water or food and even result in fires or explosions that can send toxic fumes and debris into the air, putting entire populations at risk of infection. Other emergencies have clear public health implications from the outset. A deliberate biochemical attack, for example, poses direct and immediate threats that can easily spread beyond the initial impact zone.
In fact, there is scarcely an emergency situation that does not have some public health component. This is why public health preparedness is such a critical component of any disaster readiness plan. From controlling the spread of disease inside a single hospital, to managing an outbreak as it traverses an entire region - public health preparedness specialists are needed to develop plans, coordinate responses and use prior experiences to help prevent the next crisis from even occurring.
This specialization is just one of the many career outcomes of the Online Emergency Management and Homeland Security degree at Arizona State University. With this, students may one day play a critical role in helping keep communities and individuals safe from harm in the event of a disaster.
Joining the Ultimate Team Effort
While the fallout from some disasters can be easily contained, many types of public health emergencies are dangerous precisely because of their potential to spread. Health preparedness specialists working in the public health sector must therefore be ready to collaborate with a diverse group of professionals, organizations and layers of government in order to deploy critical resources and prevent further escalation.
Depending on the nature of the emergency, this may entail working with hospitals and local medical staff or enlisting scientific experts and researchers. It can also require coordinating communications and resources through various government offices and even deploying military support. Working as a public health preparedness specialist takes significant management skills to ensure that such varied teams are able to function effectively as a cohesive unit.
Consider the Zika virus outbreak in 2016. Agencies in affected South American countries worked with the World Health Organization, President Obama, the Centers for Disease Control and the state governments in at-risk areas in order to track the spread of the virus. Mosquito experts provided abatement plans to kill bugs that could carry Zika, while others leveraged digital communications and the news media to raise awareness and mitigate panic. Thanks to some intensive planning ahead of time, emergency response teams were quickly mobilized across the U.S. to attend to every aspect of the outbreak.
Communicating to Save Lives
Whether or not a situation has escalated into an actual emergency, facing a crisis demands nimble communication skills from a public health preparedness specialist. This includes being able to quickly assemble and manage teams of hands-on professionals as well as calmly share important information with the public at large.
At times, it may be necessary to work directly with doctors and other medical staff to gain information, discuss strategies and coordinate efforts. While not every public health specialist will necessarily have a background in medicine, experience as anything from an EMT to a physician can lend valuable perspective and medical vocabulary to work alongside clinical staff.
In other instances, awareness and educational campaigns must target the public. Stopping the spread of disease may be as simple as getting people to wash their hands, but this requires broad engagement beyond the healthcare sector. Education and awareness can be as important to mitigation and containment as having doctors and medical supplies available.
Turning Technology into Humanitarian Tools
In today’s globalized and interconnected world, public health isn’t just a local or even a national concern. Disease and disorder can spread as rapidly as information. Therefore, being able to quickly identify health trends is an important part of a specialist’s planning and response to an emergency.
Using a sophisticated combination of technologies, ranging from social media to intelligence networks, public health preparedness specialists can keep an eye on the world at large. This allows them to better anticipate where resources are needed, who can be deployed on the scene and even when the next disaster may strike.
Where the latest technology is not available, humanitarian and non-government organizations can still play a role in monitoring and communicating public health risks and emergencies. Detection, like containment, can be optimized through education and awareness programs. Many organizations now exist to support such efforts. Community engagement in at-risk areas with limited resources can also aid in prevention and potentially warn other stakeholders around the world that help is needed.
Playing Many Roles on Many Stages
Demand can be high for public health preparedness specialists, with salaries ranging from $40,000 to over $100,000 depending on the specific role and employer.
- Some of the primary employers of public health preparedness specialists are government organizations:
- At the federal level, the Centers for Disease Control is typically the lead agency responsible for public health emergency planning and response coordination. The CDC employs thousands of specialists in a variety of related roles.
- Each state generally has its own local office, often the state’s Department of Public Health or Human Services.
- Larger cities and counties may also employ permanent staff dedicated to this type of disaster planning.
Additionally, private and nonprofit organizations have a need for public health preparedness specialists:
- Large hospitals will sometimes retain consultants or permanently employ public health specialists to focus on developing contingencies, coordinating staff to handle emergencies and prepare the hospital to work with state and federal groups in the event of a crisis.
- NGOs, from the World Health Organization to disease-specific or country-specific nonprofits or other nongovernmental organization will also recruit specialists to aid their various missions and campaigns as well as keep governments around the world alerted to possible emergencies.
Working as a public health preparedness specialist can entail working with technology in addition to being part health administrator, part strategist and part communications expert. With so many hats to wear, these professionals have a wide range of employment opportunities. From local to global scales - public health planning and mitigation professionals are needed everywhere.
Want to know more about this line of work? Interested in other opportunities in the field? Learn more about developing health preparedness qualifications by exploring the online Emergency Management & Homeland Security master’s degree program at Arizona State University, an advanced degree focused on specialized skills for impacting the future of public safety.