CT Virtual Operations Support Team (CTVOST)

State: CT Type: Promising Practice Year: 2018

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Uncas Health District
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CT Virtual Operations Support Team (CTVOST)
LHD Description/Website: The Uncas Health District (www.uncashd.org) is headquartered in Norwich, CT and provides local public health services to 96,116 residents in the Connecticut municipalities of Bozrah, Griswold, Lebanon, Lisbon, Montville, Norwich, Salem, Sprague, and Voluntown. These nine communities vary considerably: Norwich is a city of nearly 40,000 residents and is highly diverse, while the other nine towns are considerably smaller and more homogenous. Department activities include environmental health inspections, infectious disease review and follow-up, health outreach and education, and public health emergency preparedness. Public Health Issue: CT is a Home Rule” state and therefore each town has its own local emergency management director (EMD). UHD's member towns are managed by part-time EMDs with the exception of Norwich. These towns rely heavily on mutual aid support from neighboring towns and the region. With limited emergency management resources, local capacity to respond to the public's concerns during an emergency is severely limited. With the rising role of social media in our culture especially as it relates to disasters, the UHD recognized the need for support in this area. Across the globe, VOSTs work virtually to monitor and analyze social media for important trends before, during, or after an event. In 2014, the Philadelphia Department of Public Health used a Virtual Operations Support Team (VOST) in managing the Papal Visit to the city. They recruited from the Medical Reserve Corps (MRC) and trained for this special event. After learning of the VOST's success in Philadelphia, UHD applied for and won an MRC Challenge Award in 2016 to develop a similar capacity within its MRC unit. Goals/Objectives: The project goals were to 1) provide broader and deeper public health situational awareness information via social media analysis, 2) engage community members for the purpose of helping people help themselves and thereby reduce the demand on emergency responders, 3) strengthen CT MRC units through recruitment activities in the Preparedness phase, and 4) promote community resilience through public health and emergency preparedness messaging in all phases of emergency management. Project objectives were to 1) recruit 8-16 MRC volunteers to join the VOST, 2) develop custom VOST training, 3) develop a team handbook outlining policies and procedures; and 4) activate the VOST at least once annually. Implementation: In Spring 2016 UHD contracted with Epimetra from Rochester, NY to develop and deliver custom VOST training as well as draft the VOST Team Handbook. For recruitment, UHD partnered with MRC units and local EMDs. Eleven volunteers completed the first offering of VOST training in May 2016. Epimetra staff also co-hosted a VIP session for emergency management partners throughout CT; this session generated interest in the VOST by partners from the Capitol Region. With this buy-in, UHD was able to expand recruitment for a second cohort of VOST trainees in early 2017. The Region 4 Emergency Planning Team approved two funding requests for training more volunteers. Results: All project goals/objectives were met. Currently the team has recruited and trained 24 members from eastern and north central CT, half of whom joined the MRC explicitly to support the VOST. CT VOST has been activated 10 times over 18 months in support of emergency management in seven jurisdictions. We have supported individual Emergency Operations Centers, local health departments, as well as Regional Incident Management Teams and a Regional Coordination Center. The most common request is for support of mass gatherings (large road races, political rallies, and community festivals). Survey results show high satisfaction among requesting agencies in terms of serving as a force multiplier and providing timely and valuable situational awareness reports. This new volunteer asset has also earned media attention. Factors contributing to the project's success included leadership support provided by our training partner, Epimetra, as well as the Philadelphia Department of Public Health who generously shared their experience; local buy-in from MRC Coordinators, Incident Management Teams, and key emergency management influencers; and strong leadership provided by our two VOST team leaders. Public Health Impact: The CT VOST has dramatically expanded the capacity of the MRC within Connecticut, particularly with respect to blue skies” activations and support of emergency management in an area they are under-resourced in, i.e., leveraging social media to inform situational awareness. CT VOST has received two substantial regional training grants ($22,890) to support continued expansion of the team. Having a VOST to support CT emergency responders in all phases of emergency management strengthens community resilience statewide. Since its inception, the team has contributed approximately $17,000 and 483 hours in volunteer service.
The public health issue this innovation addresses is local emergency management's capacity to integrate social media into situational awareness, response, and recovery operations. Using a Medical Reserve Corps volunteer team to act as a force multiplier to emergency responders for the express purpose of monitoring social media is a unique approach. Because our VOST can deploy virtually, we consider the entire state of Connecticut to be the target population. To date the VOST has supported communities representing 36% of CT's population. Historically little has been done in CT to integrate social media information into emergency planning and response. Local EMDs have limited capacity or capability to mine social media. In large scale events, the CT Fusion Center can provide social media monitoring support, but the majority of local emergencies do not involve the Fusion Center. One Incident Management Team (IMT) in western CT can monitor social media, but the team only has one member capable of filling this role, and he often is overwhelmed with other responsibilities. The VOST concept is relatively new (the acronym was coined in 2011) and has limited adoption in public health. We are aware of only two other MRC units that have developed this capacity: Philadelphia (only used for one special event) and New York City (only used to support the health department). Our VOST is able to deploy virtually, thereby eliminating the need to provide physical space and resources for these volunteers. Virtual deployment affords volunteers the ability to serve from anywhere as long as they have Internet access and a device. Benefits of using a VOST include: 1) no geographic barriers, 2) volunteers do not have to put themselves in harm's way to respond, 3) activation time is significantly reduced, 4) there are several free online tools to facilitate team operations, 5) this type of volunteering capitalizes on a technology (social media) that younger citizens are adept at, and 6) adding a VOST to our MRC unit has provided more training and response opportunities for our non-medical volunteers.
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The UHD is the sponsoring organization for the Uncas MRC which includes CT VOST. The health district was instrumental in providing staff to organize and lead the team. All activations of the VOST require approval of the Director of Health. UHD reached out to several community partners when launching the VOST: Region 4 Emergency Planning Team, Southeast Council of Governments, Capitol Region Council of Governments, the CT Fusion Center, CT Department of Public Health, CT Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, regional Incident Management Teams, Goodwin College, Community Emergency Response Teams, Region 4 Healthcare Coalition, and local Emergency Management Directors. These partners advised UHD on recruitment, helped fund training, providing training venues, and hosted VOST Open Houses. Many of these groups have also requested support from the VOST for real events. Goals/Objectives: The project goals were to 1) provide broader and deeper public health situational awareness information via social media analysis, 2) engage community members for the purpose of helping people help themselves and thereby reduce the demand on emergency responders, 3) strengthen CT MRC units through recruitment activities in the Preparedness phase, and 4) promote community resilience through public health and emergency preparedness messaging in all phases of emergency management. Project objectives were to 1) recruit 8-16 MRC volunteers to join the VOST, 2) develop custom VOST training, 3) develop a team handbook outlining policies and procedures; and 4) activate the VOST at least once annually. Implementation: In Spring 2016 UHD contracted with Epimetra from Rochester, NY to develop and deliver custom VOST training as well as draft the VOST Team Handbook. For recruitment, UHD partnered with MRC units and local EMDs. Eleven volunteers completed the first offering of VOST training in May 2016. Epimetra staff also co-hosted a VIP session for emergency management partners throughout CT; this session generated interest in the VOST by partners from the Capitol Region. With this buy-in, UHD was able to expand recruitment for a second cohort of VOST trainees in early 2017. The Region 4 Emergency Planning Team approved two funding requests for training more volunteers. Recruitment criteria for the VOST include: age 18 or older, member of a CT MRC or CERT, completion of training prerequisites (ICS 100, IS 42), experience using one or more social media platforms, willingness to attend 16-hr classroom training, and agreement to a background check. First we recruited from existing MRCs and CERTs. We cross-marketed the VOST to people who signed up for a May 2016 PER-304 course offered in East Haddam, CT and used this free FEMA course as Day One of our two-day training. Next we used Linked In and Facebook to recruit additional team members. We also used regional healthcare coalitions to promote the VOST training. Start-up costs for this new team were generously paid for through a NACCHO MRC Challenge Award of $15,000: Training curriculum & team handbook development $4,675 Travel $ 235 Uniforms $ 850 Staff coordination $5,820 Recruitment stipends $3,200 Background checks $220
All of our initial project objectives were achieved and in some instances well exceeded. Key outcomes include: Recruited and trained 11 volunteers (VOST cohort #1, May 2016) Recruited and trained 8 additional volunteers (VOST cohort #2, February 2017) Recruited and trained 5 additional volunteers (VOST cohort #3, October 2017) 11 of the 24 VOST members are new MRC volunteers, and 21 of the 24 VOST members (88%) remain active. We have fulfilled 10 of 11 team activation requests from July 2016 to November 2017. Team members have donated 483 hours of services estimated at ~$17,000 in value. Each training session was evaluated by participants using Epimetra's online training evaluation form. Results from these evaluations informed refinement of future sessions. The CT VOST Manager has surveyed requesting agencies about their experience with the VOST, and of the four who responded, satisfaction levels were quite high. All four indicated they would use the VOST again, and in fact two of the four have. Improvements we've made based on agency feedback are: 1) development of a report template for sharing key findings with Incident Command; and 2) addition of a proprietary analysis tool to enhance access to Facebook and Instagram.
The UHD's ability to sustain CT VOST will depend on several key factors: Continued federal MRC funding which supports staffing/coordination Continued requests for CT VOST support Continued support from CT DEMHS and DPH Continued support from regional Councils of Governments for training and software tools CT VOST has a strong network of emergency management advocates across the state at local and regional levels who want to ensure the continued success and availability of this unique resource here in CT. The annual staffing costs are approximately $7,500, and annual proprietary software costs are $12,500. Because CT VOST serves communities statewide, an argument can be made for sharing these costs across all five regions in CT. The role of social media in emergencies continues to strengthen, thereby substantiating the need for VOSTs. The next year will be critical for increasing awareness among local EMDs about CT VOST and its role in community resilience. The UHD plans to focus efforts in 2018 on: Educating local EMDs about CT VOST capabilities Determining the best sponsoring organization for CT VOST to succeed – does it fit best in the MRC or elsewhere? Exploring ways to use CT VOST and its proprietary tools for passive public health surveillance on a continuous basis
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