The Quiet Enemy: How a Pandemic Could Level Law Enforcement!

By Joseph A. Ruffini

Picture this nightmare scenario for a law enforcement administrator. A period of 6 weeks of extreme
crisis, characterized by a 200% increase in violent crimes, a 500% rise in breaking and entering calls, an unprecedented number of 18-wheeler hijackings and daily incidents of assault and battery in local hospitals, doctors’ offices and at grocery stores and gas stations. While all of this is happening, 30% of law enforcement officers are unavailable for duty, unable to respond to calls, incapable of providing security and maintaining general law and order. What’s going on here? It’s called pandemic influenza.

Pandemic influenza is a worldwide outbreak of a new flu virus that is efficiently transmitted between humans. Many times throughout the 20th century and once during the new millennium, pandemic influenza exacted its toll among world populations. In 1918, the Spanish flu killed half a million Americans. The Asian flu of 1957 resulted in 70,000 US deaths. The Hong Kong flu took 43,000 American lives in 1968. Yet all of these outbreaks and their results may pale in comparison to what the medical community labels as the pending H5N1 Avian influenza, or what most of us have come to know through media reports as bird flu.

Thus far, bird flu has only been transmitted from birds to humans with the most numerous and notable cases occurring in China, Southeast Asia and portions of Africa and the Middle East. But the Avian flu, as with any virus, has the potential to mutate to a level enabling disease transmission not only from bird to human, but from human to human. If and when the human-to-human transmission occurs, the pandemic influenza will have entered phase four, localized human transmission, of the World Health Organization’s six phases of pandemic influenza. The 5th and 6th phases—expanded human transmission and sustained human transmission—are the phases for which law enforcement should now be preparing.

According to Health and Human Services worst case estimates, an Avian Flu outbreak could affect half our nation’s population: 156,500,000 Americans. This figure includes forecasts of 90 million taken ill, 1.9 million US deaths, nearly 10 million hospitalized, 45 million receiving outpatient care, 1.5 million in intensive care and another 750,000 Americans requiring ventilation.

What about vaccines? It will take six to nine months from the time the virus mutates to a human-to-human transmission strand to isolate the virus and begin developing a truly effective vaccine. The vaccines must be created the old-fashioned way with chicken eggs (one egg per one dose of vaccine). Health and Human Services predicts that it will take a full six months to develop quantities of vaccine large enough for general distribution throughout the United States. But here’s the rub; approximately 75 million doses of vaccine will be produced and distributed for our population of nearly 290 million persons. The federal government recommends to the states that vaccine distribution go to those who are in position to help sustain infrastructure and mitigate the impact to the economy and functioning society—people like health care providers and first responders. Good news for cops—they are first responders. They will probably receive the vaccine.

Historically, flu seasons are their strongest from December through April of the calendar year during which they strike. If this next pandemic flu comes to fruition, more than 30% of the US workforce at any one time may be unable to report for work for six to eight weeks. If this occurs there will be shortages of grocery store goods, fuel, medicines, etc. because the people who harvest, process, produce, deliver and sell these items will be among the casualties.

International, national and state containment plans aimed at minimizing the spread of the flu are in place. These plans call for everything from social distancing at the workplace (minimum 3 feet between persons) to travel restrictions. If the outbreak of flu becomes serious enough within a given community, daily human contact may be ordered to a minimum by closing movie theaters and schools, banning conferences, meetings and sports events and even instituting a cordon solitaire, in effect an enforced, legal order restricting movement within and between communities.

It’s all about business continuity (BC) and disaster recovery (DR) planning. Post 9-11, BC and DR plans, exercises and operations remain major focal points within both the private and public sectors. Standards of due care and diligence require that businesses, governments, public services and especially law enforcement agencies develop plans and processes which enable them to maintain a minimum level of effective service throughout conditions imposed by man-made or natural disasters. Be it terror attacks or tornados, floods or fires, earthquakes or hazardous railcar rollovers, a community’s need to maintain the requisite number of cops on the street (COTS) is absolutely essential to good order and discipline during times of crisis.

Now that we’ve digested Pandemic Flu 101, let’s discuss important considerations for critical law enforcement activity, business continuity and disaster recovery planning.

  • Cops on the street (COTS) will be vital to social stability. What’s your plan to maintain minimum effective manning? With shortages of food, fuel and medicine, full hospitals turning away infected family members and seriously depleted social services, law enforcement personnel will be desperately needed to counter what will inevitably be higher crimes in the form of increased breaking and entering, thefts, physical threats and violence resulting from emotionally stressed and distressed citizens.
  • Infected cops must voluntarily admit their symptoms and be sent home, lest they cause others to become flu victims. How do you plan to maintain your head count day-to-day? This will not be the time to play super cop and gut it out. Cops must understand that at the first signs of infection, they must distance themselves from their fellow officers until they are sure they aren’t infected.
  • Healthy cops may not be permitted to travel to and from work because of restrictions prohibiting travel between the community where they live and the community where they work. How do you plan to maintain your head count day-to-day? What may be required when the spread of influenza begins to be a serious threat to the community is to mandate that officers remain in the community in which they are serving for the duration. This means room and board for officers over a period of many weeks. This also involves finding the money now required to execute this contingency plan.
  • Healthy cops may have to remain home to care for infected family members who cannot be admitted to hospitals. Because hospitals and other medical treatment facilities will be filled to maximum capacity, while also suffering up to 30% flu casualties, there may be no one to care for ill family members except the spouse or significant other who remains healthy. How do you plan to maintain your head count day-to-day? Your state should consider including immediate family members of law enforcement personnel among those who receive doses of flu vaccine in an effort to keep healthy cops on the streets.
  • Cops responding to daily calls will come in contact with many fellow citizens. What are your policies to minimize infection resulting from human-to-human contact on the job? Should officers be required to don plastic gloves and face masks when responding to calls? Should they be required to carry disinfectant wipes in their cruisers and use them a prescribed number of times per hour? What do your supporting medical professionals recommend? Do you have the supplies required on hand now?
  • Consider mutually-supporting memorandums of agreement among law enforcement agencies in several states. Unable to know at present which communities and their law enforcement personnel will be infected, departments may want to consider developing reciprocal augmentation plans (RAPS) now. For example, the police department in Colorado Springs, Colorado, may develop RAPs with their counterparts in Grand Rapids, Portland, Miami, Louisville and five other cities. These RAPs would state simply that in the event that Colorado Springs gets hit hard by the influenza (or any other casualty-producing event), these other police departments would provide “x amount” of officers to augment the Colorado Springs day-to-day operations. The agreements would also address issues such as per diem pay, billeting, required skill sets, etc.

Will this H5N1 pandemic actually materialize? No one can say for sure. The question to law enforcement agencies is, “Would you rather plan now, with time to develop workable contingencies, or jump through hoops at the last minute, with chances of success seriously diminished?” In my opinion, plan now, or pay later!

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