Emergency preparedness coordinators are hard to come by, as the Oak Park public health director knows. The village of Oak Park has been accepting applications on a rolling basis since March, but the job is still very much open.

“The position is really hard to fill,” said Dr. Theresa Chapple-McGruder, Oak Park public health director.

As the name suggests, emergency preparedness coordinators coordinate responses to disasters through such means as crisis management, medical countermeasures, and mass dispersal of supplies. The organization of COVID-19 vaccination clinics and the distribution of protective facial coverings may leap to mind.

In the village of Oak Park, the position reports directly to the public health director, but Chapple-McGruder has seen three emergency preparedness coordinators come and go in the 25 months she’s been heading the Oak Park Public Health Department. The first of the three handed in his resignation on Chapple-McGruder’s first day.

“He was very nice, but he also informed me that he was resigning at the end of the month,” she told Wednesday Journal.

The reason for his resignation was echoed by the two coordinators who followed: the position is difficult to sustain. The likelihood of burnout in emergency preparedness coordinators is extremely high, according to Chapple-McGruder, as the position is very high stress. Those serving as emergency preparedness coordinator are required to be on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. No one can pinpoint when disaster may strike.

“Over my course here, we’ve been called at 3 o’clock in the morning to deal with an emergency,” Chapple-McGruder said.

Dr. Theresa D. Chapple-McGruder

The strain of being the person responsible for leading crisis suppression and mitigation efforts is greatly intensified in the throes of an actual crisis, such as, say, a highly contagious virus devastating the global population.

The village’s last three emergency preparedness coordinators lived through that particular scenario. All were working during the COVID-19 pandemic, the statewide emergency declaration ending this past May after being in place for 1,155 days.

The world was already deep into the pandemic when Chapple-McGruder began work in Oak Park. The emergency preparedness coordinator with whom she worked first had already been coordinating COVID-19 efforts for over a year before he left in May 2021.

It took six months for a replacement to be hired. That replacement was soon in need of a replacement himself, as he left the position after only seven months — just one month longer than the time it took to hire him.

The second coordinator of Chapple-McGruder’s tenure departed in June 2022, but the village wasn’t able to fill the position again until this past February. That person did not last, however. The replacement’s replacement called it quits just four weeks after being hired.

“We are actively recruiting for this position,” said Chapple-McGruder.

A new emergency does not wait until an existing emergency ends to rear its ugly head, either. To describe the exhausting phenomena of battling multiple crises at one time, Chapple-McGruder referred to the old adage: “When it rains, it pours.” And it poured during the reign of the trio of coordinators past.

COVID-19 has at last loosened its international grip, but there are still public health and safety crises to be handled. Winds have carried smoke pollution from the Canadian wildfires south, bestowing upon Chicago the undesirable distinction, June 27, of having the worst quality air on Earth, according global air monitoring website IQAir.

Oak Park emergency response efforts continue without a dedicated emergency preparedness coordinator, but the coordination of those efforts is split between five different people in the health department, including Chapple-McGruder. This presents a logistical challenge and creates additional work for that group on top of their regular job duties, according to the public health director.

When the harmful smog set in, the de facto emergency preparedness team set about reaching out to the village’s most vulnerable populations, calling day cares and summer camps, senior centers and senior housing. Mass emails and text messages were sent out. Alerts were posted on social media. The team also coordinated with other taxing bodies, and N95 surgical masks were made available to the public at village hall.

The whole situation, however, would have been much easier with one person managing the process from start to finish, keeping track of different aspects of the response to ensure nothing gets overlooked, according to the health director.

“One person to lead this process should be the way we go,” said Chapple-McGruder.

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