Back to the May-Jun 2020 issue

Has a Previous Emergency Informed Your Response to COVID-19?

Photo. Portrait of Todd PrafkeTODD PRAFKE
City Administrator
St. Peter (Population 11,932)

All emergencies are unique — each with its own needs and challenges. In St. Peter, we have seen our share of disasters and emergencies, whether it is a flood, tor­nado, or COVID-19.

From living through previous emergen­cies, I’ve learned that the quality of the response is governed by three primary actions.

1. Planning

We have an emergency plan and we’ve made sure everyone knows that plan. This has helped us assess the situation based on our ability to communicate, receive and analyze information, and work with partners.

While these plans did not give us the exact answers for a response in the current COVID-19 world, they have given us an understanding of the process, resources, information, and direction as to who our partners are in this situation.

2. Improvising on the fly

In any emergency, the ability to learn and improvise on the fly comes to the forefront. This is true whether you have a plan or not.

It is especially true with the coronavirus since the circum­stances are constantly changing. We’ve been reviewing the data every day and changing direction as needed.

3. Sticking to the process

Process discipline is very important. With emergencies such as this pandemic, the work comes in waves — one day, you have lots of work to do and decisions to make; the next day, it’s quiet.

During those quiet times, we don’t stop our processes. We keep gathering data, meeting, and communicating. We break our COVID Team meetings into six major parts:

  • Current situation (data, rules, challenges).
  • Community (what we know, what we hear, gaps where we can provide help or information, communication).
  • Internal city organization (facilities, our people, supply chains, service provision, internal communication).
  • Look ahead (what changes we can we plan for).
  • Sharing (time for us to talk about ourselves, stress, etc.).
  • Next meeting (agenda items, tasks, logistics for meeting, communication needed).

During times like this, our community looks to us for guidance. By taking the above actions, we are better able to provide what the community needs.


Photo. Portrait of Sara CarlsonSARA CARLSON
Alexandria (Population 13,673)

On Feb. 25, 2020, Alexandria suffered a major fire in our downtown business dis­trict. It destroyed four buildings and left the businesses, building owners, and apartment residents stranded and devastated. About a month later, we were shut down by COVID- 19, and we immediately put to use what we learned during the fire.

We know emergencies happen, and we have to be prepared. We have a plan for the whole community to follow.

Response to fire

After the fire, we quickly called a meeting of all downtown businesses to begin a process of recovery. We met with our state legislators about getting disaster relief.

On March 9, we put our emergency management team together with our City Council to review our fire response and discuss lessons learned. We also gave a response report to the County Board.

A major advantage for our staff and City Council was prior training with Homeland Security and Emergency Management Director Joe Kelly. He facilitated four different modules of emergency management. This helped us understand every per­son’s role in recovering from the fire. For example, our commu­nications coordinator coordinated media requests and assisted in finding services for displaced apartment residents.

Weekly COVID meetings

When the pandemic hit, we understood from our experience with the fire that, from the onset, communication is key. It’s vital to keep everyone in the community involved.

We now have weekly electronic COVID-19 meetings with representatives from public health, emergency management, the city, county, school district, hospital, police, sheriff, the college, and various other community leaders. This keeps us all informed of what is going on in the city, county, and state. We can anticipate where we might have needs and who can help.

In addition, we have another electronic meeting each week in which we share various COVID-related information with residents. Anyone in the community can listen to that meeting.

Communicating with the public

As a city, we issue weekly press releases and have used the local news media and social media extensively to communicate with the public. A good relationship with media is paramount.

This is not an easy time for anyone. It’s critical to keep citi­zens updated, as information makes people feel safer.