Thursday, July 23, 2009

Canada: Police ready in case of flu pandemic

July 23, 2009

OTTAWA — If the predicted “second wave” of the H1N1 flu pandemic hits Ottawa in the fall, the Ottawa Police Service is preparing to shut down whole fields of operation to keep officers working on the department’s top priorities.

Ontario’s plan for an influenza pandemic predicts that, if the H1N1 pandemic hits Ottawa, one out of every three people could get sick, with the potential for 80 deaths per week.

“If we are faced with a situation where 30 per cent of our people are away from work, we know what areas of the police service — non-priority areas — where we can shut down or reduce service in order to reallocate staff to core service areas,” said Supt. Charles Bordeleau, the police’s manager of emergency operations.

Bordeleau described the police’s core service areas as the work of frontline patrol officers who respond to emergencies and crimes in progress.

Other priorities include the 911 call centre, investigations into major crimes and maintaining community safety.

He said the police’s emergency response time — within 10 minutes of receiving a call — would not change even if a serious pandemic grips Ottawa and nearly one-third of the police force was off sick.

However, if a pandemic was to reduce staffing levels significantly, Bordeleau said police would be unable to provide support services such as community policing centres and school resource officers.

Investigations into less-serious crimes would also be affected. For example, Bordeleau said that, if your home were broken into, but the

intruder was not still in the house, it may take longer for police officers to arrive to begin their investigation.

Paid-duty police officers would also not be available for special events.

“These are critical areas for the police service to deliver, but, when we’re faced with an emergency where we have to make hard decisions about reallocating our staff, they’ve been deemed as lower priorities,” Bordeleau said.

Although he provided some examples of what the police consider to be priority and non-priority services, Bordeleau said he could not provide a complete list of services that would be temporarily shut down or reduced in a pandemic scenario because doing so would compromise public safety.

“What the public needs to know is that our core emergency services are our priority areas, and when we talk about operational decisions we make around what services would be either slowing down or shutting down, I don’t think it’s a matter of public knowledge,” Bordeleau said. “There are certain services that we would decrease or stop doing that wouldn’t be in the best interest of the public or the criminal element to be aware of, for operational security reasons.”

Bordeleau said all police officers were trained to do regular patrol and respond to emergencies, so it wouldn’t be difficult to move staff around as needed.

He said police did not expect an increase in the crime rate during a flu outbreak, but they were prepared to bolster their frontline presence in case of panic or large crowds at hospitals and clinics.

He said police would increase their street-level presence as they did in previous emergencies, such as the 1998 ice storm and the 2003 blackout, to “maintain a sense of security for our community.”

“Visibility is very important,” he said. “If we have areas where we see there may be some problems escalating, then we would increase our presence.”

The Ottawa police began developing their pandemic preparations about five years ago.

At the time, Insp. Alain Bernard was leading the program, and he first set out to see what other police agencies across the country were doing with regards to pandemic planning.

“We quickly found out that not many police agencies out there had developed the modeling of 10, 20, 30 per cent staffing and what core services they would maintain and how they would reallocate staff,” Bordeleau said.

Ottawa police are now considered the leaders in this regard.

Bordeleau, a 25-year-veteran of the police service, says a serious flu outbreak differs from other emergencies police need to prepare for because of how it would likely affect their own officers.

“What pandemic planning brought alive to our organization is the issue of not only could the community be impacted by sick leave or sickness, but (also) our own internal staff as well,” he said.

“It really forced us to take a hard look at how do we make decisions around what services we need to continue delivering and what services we either reduce or stop delivering in the interim.”

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