Alabama's agency for Influenza Pandemic Emergency Preparedness held a seminar in Mobile aimed at nurses, social workers, and emergency first responders describing what a 1918 style pandemic (our last severe pandemic) could mean for the US. That translates to roughly 100 million people falling ill and a potential of 1.9 million dead, with each state suffering their statistical percentage.
The Press-Register report of the seminar is one of the few that I have read that states the situation law enforcement may well find themselves in during a severe pandemic.
Lt. Joseph McClellan of the Alabama Department of Homeland Security said that law enforcement agencies and other first responders have to prepare to lose about half their work force because they will either be sick or caring for dying relatives.
It's unclear if crime will increase, but it certainly won't decline, he said.
"Bad people will take advantage of good people during bad times," McClellan said.
Security will need to be provided for mass burial sites, hospitals and pharmacies as fear and chaos could take hold of the community, McClellan said. Officers will have to reprioritize their calls; burglaries and robberies may not be on the top of the list.
While looking over various agencies' plans, McClellan said he's found that too many call for support from Alabama State Troopers.
"There aren't enough state troopers to fill those spots," he said. Those plans need to be changed, he said.
In late 2006 I posted my assessment of Law Enforcement during a severe pandemic here and again here. Since law enforcement is also near and dear to me I pay extra attention when the issues of policing and pandemic meet.
Unfortunately, in the year and a half since I wrote those entries the only thing that has really changed when it comes to law enforcement's planned response to a severe pandemic is that now they are planning to plan instead of being blissfully ignorant. That means, to put it bluntly, that now they are informed but still lacking in any meaningful preparations, although they plan to plan.
There are a few exceptions of course, but the vast majority still feel that they will handle a pandemic as they handle every other "incident"… they will do what needs to be done.
Someone needs to tell the rest that doing what needs to be done presupposes personnel to do the "doing". And as it stands currently that means doing it without adequate personal protection against infection, no vaccine, no prophylactic antivirals, no proper and modern medical treatment should they become ill or injured. And last, the very real likelihood of having no available and timely "backup" from fellow officers should they find themselves in an "Officer Needs Assistance" situation.
As the mother of a patrol officer under 30 years old I take these issues personally. It's hard to get more personal than a threat to one's own child. To help him meet the threat of what he may face as a cop during a pandemic I have taken it upon myself to make sure he has the means of protecting himself from infection as well as anyone can and still perform their public functions. But I know there is nothing I can do to protect him from potential injuries sustained in the performance of those duties. Injuries, perhaps life-threatening, that will likely go medically untreated, or at best, inadequately treated.
I have come to question whether I will support his decision to remain on patrol or if the "mother" in me will over ride my sense of civic duty and encourage him to be one of the many who will refuse to put themselves in such a tenuous and precarious position. When I am being honest with myself there is no question: I value my son's life far, far more than I value the property or life of some anonymous stranger.
If strangers want to be protected those strangers need to demand that their local law enforcement agencies adequately prepare for a severe pandemic. Otherwise, well, those strangers may find they have to protect themselves.
It's as simple as that.