Better preparedness enables municipalities to cope better with crises like the corona pandemic. But what makes for good emergency preparedness? Berlin's Senate Department for Health makes a case for a 24-hour crisis team. But a vitally important team like this is not formed overnight.
A pandemic puts a lot of strain on a public health department’s technical workforce, often exacerbating existing staff shortages. Making sure that specialist expertise and experience can be optimally leveraged in times of crisis requires a highly strategic approach to staff deployment.
A crisis generally leaves little time for lengthy decision-making routes, complicated processes and long-winded procedures. Instead, faster, more agile solutions have to be identified, and quickly.
This also applies to information and communications management, where more information has to be processed through better and faster pathways.
Public health authorities have to make the best possible use of their human and financial resources during a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic and be ready to intervene at all times, including when the crisis escalates. To this end, the authorities need to have a crisis team waiting in the wings whose decision-making structures and work processes are clear and well-rehearsed.
In an acute emergency, the crisis response team of the Berlin Senate Department for Health mobilises two units: ‘Operational and Strategic Management’ and ‘Administration and Organisation’. Staff from the HR, IT, Press and Procurement Departments are also on the team.
In the event of a crisis, the team first evaluates the risk and defines the given situation, with a view to planning the way forward and taking decisions that will subsequently be rolled out by various actors. These three steps are continuously repeated as the risk situation continues to evolve.
Concrete measures include initiating quarantine regulations and staffing hotlines. Moreover, the team constantly monitors the infection's development. Logistical tasks include providing protective gear, evaluating test results and rolling out treatment and vaccination strategies.
If a crisis team is well designed, the professionals required for each thematic aspect – such as public health doctors – can focus exclusively on their key tasks. Often, in their normal day-to-day work, they are also required to perform more menial tasks, such as administrative paperwork. However, in a crisis, this is seen to by others.
The crisis response team of the Berlin Senate Department for Health also demonstrates how important it is to embed such units in the agency’s structures, as this fast-tracks decision-making pathways to central functions, such as ministers, mayors or district chief executives. The generally far-reaching powers entrusted to the crisis team's leadership are usually clearly defined in advance so that in a crisis, when time is of the essence, there is no uncertainty as to who is in charge and has the authority to issue orders.
Having actual plans on hand for various crisis scenarios enables the Department to allocate important roles and tasks quickly and clearly.
For Berlin's Senate Department, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown how important it is to have a crisis team on standby around the clock. Also, it is absolutely essential that staff are properly prepared to take on the many responsibilities and to handle the urgent tasks.