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Amid challenging vaccine rollout, emergency manager makes time for tomorrow makers

On the one-year anniversary of the coordinated emergency response to COVID-19, Pennsylvania College of Technology students had the opportunity to hear from the director of the Snohomish County (Washington) Department of Emergency Management, whose jurisdiction includes the country’s first confirmed case of the coronavirus.

Jason M. Biermann spoke with Penn College students on March 2, part of a series of presentations arranged by David E. Bjorkman, instructor of emergency management/social science at the college.

Biermann told his audience that he got involved in emergency management “by accident … literally” when he lost his wallet after getting a flu shot through the local health department. Returning to reclaim it, he noticed a job posting – “hiring for a public health response coordinator” – and pursued it.

An Army veteran and firefighter, he holds an undergraduate degree in disaster management and a master’s in security studies.

Employed in Snohomish County since 2009 (and director since 2016), Biermann oversees the daily operations of a staff that provides comprehensive emergency management services to 17 cities and towns, and two tribal nations. He also represents the department in a broad variety of public health/wellness and emergency preparedness/response initiatives.

He and his well-qualified team serve nearly 850,000 people, additionally handling most of the training, exercising and coordination of any emergency response. They have managed eight major disaster declarations in the past decade, including the deadliest landslide in U.S. history in March 2014.

In his presentation, Biermann told of the nation’s first diagnosed COVID-19 patient who returned from Wuhan, China, in January 2020. Immediately after the case was confirmed, he said, EMS personnel were notified to transport the patient. Upon contact tracing, they assumed the outbreak was limited and were planning to “stand down.” In short order, however, another case was detected at a local high school and there was notice of an outbreak at a nursing home in nearby Kirkland. In February, the state would record its first COVID-related death.

Faced with a new challenge, he said the county’s priorities were appropriate departmental staffing for emergency management, maintaining and sharing situational awareness of the virus, supporting resource requests, providing timely public updates and mitigating secondary impacts, addressing the Safe Start reopening plan, and responding to other crises – including an opioid epidemic, weather emergencies and civil unrest.

He shared some of his department’s successes in managing the COVID19 outbreak, including the power of networking to purchase millions of pieces of personal protective equipment to distribute throughout the county. He is very pleased with the response, touting the department’s massive outreach through social media platforms and other communication outlets.

Biermann cautions his staff to “not let perfect be the enemy of completion” and to “fill in the gaps where you see others do not have the ability to move as quickly.”

He and his colleagues focused on an agricultural industry that would suffer from marketplace shutdown, coordinating the purchase of the farmers’ food to distribute throughout the county wherever the need was greatest. Although they never intended to become so operationally involved, they have seen great success in meeting need with action.

Cited as key components of a winning strategy were partnerships and innovative involvement with other agencies, the support of elected officials, and – because communication is crucial – the use of technology for two-way interaction with diverse audiences.

He described the challenges experienced by the county: maintaining a consistent message, navigating logistics and supply chain management, navigating partners’ priorities, and working to avoid burnout of an overtaxed and fatigued staff.

His department is now full-on into vaccinations: The first drive-through site was opened Jan. 6, part of an overall strategy that includes indoor, drive-through and community-based clinics. Where it makes sense, the vaccination sites incorporate public-private partnerships. The department had to create local capability to schedule appointments while simultaneously addressing equity for technologically challenged populations. The biggest challenge remains limited vaccine supply.

Biermann’s theme is “All disasters are local,” which means the response is often best delivered by those closest to the scene.

When asked what advice he would offer blossoming emergency managers, he said he encourages people to espouse and embody change.

“Do not think of yourself as an afterthought for the disaster, but look to move … from post-911/post-Katrina to “Emergency Management 3.0,” which embraces innovation and will define the industry as it moves into its next phase,” he said, predicting that those entering the profession are on the verge of “some really cool things.”

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