Getting ready for the next global health emergency

By Nicole Spence 

British Columbia’s health emergency management leaders join the World Health Organization and its global partners in planning an exercise that will prepare us for the next global public health emergency
By Nicole Spence

This past September, Health Emergency Management BC (HEMBC), a program of the Provincial Health Services Authority that provides emergency management leadership and support to the health authorities in BC, co-hosted a planning meeting with the World Health Organization (WHO) to develop detailed plans for a global public health emergency exercise. Its purpose is to allow health emergency partners across the province and nation to discover planning and operational response gaps while building on strengths and opportunities, all of which have direct application to the way British Columbia ensures continuity of health services for its population during an emergency.

“It’s been ten years since a global health security exercise has been conducted,” said Paul Cox, team lead for the Public Health Emergency Operations Centre Network. “Since that time, we have witnessed several events, including the Ebola epidemic, and there are concerns about possible future pandemics.”
While it has been ten years since the last influenza pandemic, there have been four public health emergencies of international concern declared in that time, and over 100 years since the 1918 influenza pandemic that resulted in the death of millions around the world. “These events occur periodically and it is a matter of a time before another global pandemic,” elaborates Mr. Cox. “We hope to not have to use these tools, but if an event happens, these exercises will support our readiness.”

Framework for the global exercise

The WHO established the Public Health Emergency Operations Centre Network in 2012 to promote best practices and standards and strengthen coordination and collaboration for public health emergency operation centres (EOC). Through the network, WHO published a Framework for a Public Health Emergency Operations Centre in November 2015, providing Member States with high-level guidance for establishing or strengthening a functional public health EOC.

Aware that the next pandemic could take place at any moment, a series of simulation exercises to assess the functionality and interoperability of public health EOCs of selected Member States have been conducted in 2018. The first was conducted in Jordan in January, followed by an exercise in Senegal in May. As the third and final in the series, a Global Emergency Operations Centre Exercise (GEOCX) will be conducted December 4 to 6, 2018.

Here in British Columbia, we know that a functioning emergency operations centre is an effective means of coordinating partners responding to public health events and emergencies.  The health system in BC has successfully established emergency operations centres as central locations for management of emergencies for many years.

Planning for the exercise

The approach to the planning meeting was truly collaborative. Local and national programs and agencies were able to provide local context and expertise of conducting exercises with emergency operations centres of various sizes, while participating WHO staff and consultants were able to guide the session in an efficient and innovative manner to achieve three objectives:

  1. To refine and endorse exercise concept
  2. To review exercise plan and other technical materials
  3. To identify and assign responsibilities and critical tasks

Image source: Getty images

“A common failing of exercises is a lack of documentation,” said Mr. Cox. “Participants at the meeting were provided with resources for planning exercises such as implementations and communications plan templates, which allowed them to generate the documentation necessary to walk away with procedures they can apply to their centres immediately.”

To prepare for the worst, we need to move away from the underlying focus of success and rather strive for failure. GEOCX is designed to practice and evaluate plans, procedures and policies through a scenario that involves the introduction of a novel virus in a cluster of disease with high mortality and significant morbidity. Participants in the EOC will respond to the simulated events in their normal roles in the centre, drawing on established plans and procedures. This allows them to practice and maintain critical skill sets, and to continuously improve the overall functioning of the EOC – based on practical information about the efficiency of procedures, discovering gaps in planning and operational responses, building on strengths and identifying opportunities for improving plans and procedures.

Benefits of the global exercise

A public health EOC is a hub that brings together, under the umbrella of the Ministry of Health, all relevant experts, groups and stakeholders involved in preparedness for, and response to, public health emergencies. The global exercise will test the adaptability and gaps of the Framework and other public health EOC technical guidance, and guide WHO to improve these documents. At a local level, the exercise will support participating EOCs to assess and improve their readiness for managing large scale public health emergencies; build national capacity for management of emergencies; and improve interoperability and coordination among public health EOCs and response partners for more effective operations.

The meeting was also helpful for establishing connections and networks that Canadian participants and municipal emergency managers can draw upon for future initiatives, highlighting the emergency operations network principles of collaboration, encouraging innovation, and cultivating trust.

The meeting was attended by 28 participants from 11 countries, with representation from seven national agencies (including the Public Health Agency of Canada), three provincial programs (the BC Centre for Disease Control, BC Emergency Health Services, and HEMBC), and WHO headquarters and regional and country offices. Participants were comprised of experts, temporary advisors, members of WHO working groups, observers, and staff from WHO regional and country offices and headquarters.

Image source: with permission from WHO and HEMBC

Further information

If you are part of an emergency operations centre, you are encouraged to join the Public Health Emergency Operations Centre Network. Membership is open to emergency operations centres and individuals, including emergency and event managers, technical experts, and other professionals who have an active role in public health emergency preparedness and response.

To find out more about GEOCX, contact the Public Information Officers in participating Member States’ regional WHO offices and WHO Communications in Geneva.


Nicole Spence is a Coordinator with HEMBC in Vancouver, BC. She holds a BA in Psychology and a Graduate Diploma in Public Health, with a focus on International and Global Health and Development. She is interested in the effects of globalization and climate change on global health and its link to emergency management. Nicole is of European descent residing on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations. On the weekends, Nicole can be found in the local mountains sharing her favourite rosé with fellow alpinists.