By Joel C. Spangenberg, MA, MLS, MEM, CHS-V, PMP
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2013) estimates that approximately 75 percent of recently emerging diseases that affect humans had their origin in animals. Well-known examples of these zoonotic diseases include avian influenza, West Nile virus, and Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis, better known as Mad Cow Disease. Some animal diseases can cause pandemics among humans and, even when they do not sicken humans, can cause billions of dollars of economic loss. For example, during the 2001 outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) in the United Kingdom, more than six million animals were slaughtered to stop the disease’s spread. Direct economic private and public sector losses were estimated to total over £8 billion (U.K. National Audit Office [NAO], 2002, pp. 17-25). Without accounting for inflation, these losses would exceed $12 billion at today’s exchange rate.
And the United States may not fare any better should a major outbreak occur here. According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the 2003 Crimson Sky exercise demonstrated that a similar outbreak in the United States would cause the loss of 23 million animals, even if quickly contained (U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce, and the District of Columbia [OGM], 2009, p. 73). And, of course, a zoonotic outbreak that is transmissible to and between humans has the potential to cause even greater losses, including the loss of human life.
Although they play a key role in controlling animal disease and protecting the food supply, there are too few Federal veterinarians supporting the nation’s homeland security needs. Significant factors affecting government recruitment and retention of veterinarians include a veterinary education and internship system that does not create enough interest in Federal service, unfavorable pay as compared to the private and academic sectors, large education debt loads, and difficult working conditions. One Federal agency affected by this shortage is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS), where understaffing among veterinarians has continued for over a decade (GAO, 2009, p. 6). As the government faces sustained budget pressure, matters may worsen. In addition, a recent assessment shows that there exist considerable capability gaps in the areas of homeland security knowledge and experience among Federal veterinarians (Federal Veterinary Workforce Talent Management Advisory Council [TMAC],2012a, pp. 19-21).
The following overview of the 2009 GAO report will provide additional background about the challenges facing this workforce.
Disease control efforts in response to the 2001 U.K. foot-and-mouth disease
outbreak led to the slaughter of millions of animals. Image source: BBC
GAO’s Findings, Conclusions, and Recommendations
In February 2009, GAO issued a report titled “Veterinarian Workforce: Actions Are Needed to Ensure Sufficient Capacity for Protecting Public and Animal Health.” This investigative congressional agency evaluated the adequacy of the Federal veterinarian workforce in conducting its normal activities, such as food safety inspections at slaughter plants and research. It also assessed the adequacy of the Federal government’s workforce planning for catastrophic events such as pandemics and FMD outbreaks in livestock. And finally, it analyzed the challenges Federal and state governments faced during four zoonotic outbreaks during the previous decade.
GAO (2009) concluded that a lack of understanding, planning, and assessment presented an obstacle to the Federal veterinarian workforce in the achievement of its missions. First, GAO found that the Federal government had made no effort to fully grasp its veterinarians’ current and near future sufficiency. Second, it found that there was inadequate planning to ensure continuity of operations during a pandemic, which could increase absenteeism among veterinarians to 40 percent. Having fewer veterinarians available to perform animal slaughter activities or investigate possible animal disease outbreaks could have serious public health and homeland security consequences. Third, GAO identified planning and modeling assumptions about the spread of and response to certain animal diseases that were either unrealistic or not fully considered. And fourth, it concluded that too few post-zoonotic outbreak assessments have been carried out by the agencies involved. This means that they missed opportunities to strengthen their response to future events.
The outbreaks that GAO reviewed are particularly illuminating as they show a connection between preparedness that affects homeland security, in this case human capital planning, and consequences. Outbreaks in Michigan, Colorado, and California between 1994 and 2003 revealed insufficient veterinarian staffing at the Federal and state levels. California’s exotic Newcastle disease outbreak, which affected birds there from 2002 to 2003, was particularly complex and required a task force that included 1,250 veterinarians. This single event reduced capacity in other states, from which many of the task force veterinarians were drawn, demonstrating that there was a substantial risk that multiple, simultaneous outbreaks could overwhelm capacity (GAO, 2009, pp. 35-39).
In total, GAO (2009) made the following nine recommendations to improve Federal veterinarian capacity, ensure sufficient coverage during a pandemic, and strengthen workforce response to an animal disease outbreak (pp. 42-43).
An estimated 6,000 veterinarians would be needed to contain a national-scale foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in the U.S, but only 250 Federal veterinarians were identified as deployable in 2012. Image source: USDA Agricultural Research Service.
U.S. Senate Hearing on Federal Veterinarians
Coinciding with the report’s release in late February 2009, Senators Daniel K. Akaka (D-HI) and George V. Voinovich (R-OH) held a hearing to press for resolution of the challenges facing the Federal veterinarian workforce. These senators were then, respectively, Chairman and Ranking Member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs’ Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce, and the District of Columbia, which had government-wide oversight authority over the Federal workforce, including national security staffing and management.
Hearing witnesses representing USDA, DHS, HHS, and OPM generally agreed with GAO’s findings. Dr. Thomas McGinn, Chief Veterinarian of DHS’s Office of Health Affairs, summed up the impact of Federal veterinarians well, stating that they have “a direct impact on our Nation’s ability to protect the critical infrastructure of food and agriculture that accounts for one in six of American jobs” (OGM, 2009, p. 10). Pointing out that actions were already underway to resolve the ongoing workforce shortfall, Nancy Kichak, OPM’s Associate Director for Strategic Human Resources Policy, stated that OPM had granted government-wide direct hire authority for Federal veterinarians, which would allow for expedited, non-competitive hiring of qualified applicants. She also indicated that agencies with veterinarians were going to meet the following month to further assess the veterinary shortfalls (OGM, 2009, p. 6).
The shortage of veterinarians at FSIS was a point of general agreement between the subcommittee leaders and administration witnesses, although the adequacy of the coverage these veterinarians provide came into question. GAO (2009) identified up to a 35 percent shortage of veterinarians in U.S. slaughter plants and reported that some veterinarians believed that their ability to carry out their responsibilities was impaired (p. 14). USDA, which oversees FSIS, largely agreed with the issue of vacancies, but did not support those veterinarians’ claim of impairment (OGM, 2009, p. 127). Further, USDA argued that FSIS managers ensure sufficient veterinary capacity by taking into account geographic coverage, slaughter plant sizes, production sizes, and operational shifts (GAO, 2009, p. 54).
The absence of mission-critical occupation (MCO) status for the veterinary profession at one agency also raised some concerns since it appeared at odds with their role in protecting public and animal health. According to OPM, the authority on Federal workforce matters, an MCO is an occupation that an agency considers “core” to meeting its missions (OPM, 2013). GAO (2009) found that even though veterinarians are vital to mission accomplishment at HHS’s component agencies, department-level officials do not assess veterinarian workforce needs since they are not considered mission-critical across the Department (pp. 22-23). In follow-up to the hearing, HHS stated that the previous administration determined that an MCO designation was made only for the most populous occupations. The agency believed that the determination should be reconsidered, and insisted that it would reevaluate its MCO-designation process to ensure that it emphasizes mission accomplishment and public health impact (OGM, 2009, p. 123).
HHS and DHS witnesses broadened the discussion by highlighting operational aspects of preparing for a pandemic or animal disease outbreak. Dr. Parker candidly stated that one of the growing threats facing the government in preparing for those emergencies was “complacency.” He also indicated that progress has occurred, especially in the development and distribution of vaccines (OGM, 2009, p. 17). By his somewhat conflicting comments, he appeared to make the point that progress was very limited compared to everything that really needed to be done to be prepared.
Dr. McGinn described DHS’s progress on improving coordination with all levels of government and the private sector. He thought that the private sector’s ability to support a response to a pandemic or widespread animal disease outbreak would be crucial, particularly when compared to the very limited capacity of the Federal veterinary workforce, and that this awareness could help clarify what contributions are needed most from Federal veterinarians (OGM, p. 18). Given the response requirements of a major animal disease outbreak, which will be highlighted later in this article, this could be a crucial issue.
Non-government hearing witnesses from the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), National Association of Federal Veterinarians (NAFV), and the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC) voiced their support for Federal veterinarians, and highlighted additional concerns. Of note, Dr. Ron W. DeHaven, Chief Executive Officer of AVMA, underscored the financial and school capacity barriers affecting the number of available veterinarians and the growing demand for their services. According to him, "[p]opulation growth and growing dependence on animal protein will put increased demands on our food supply system and on those veterinarians who are responsible for its security, safety, and quality” (OGM, 2009, p. 19). Dr. Gilsdorf from NAFV and Dr. Pappaioanou from AAVMC testified about the current shortfall in the number of veterinarians, lack of veterinary school capacity, and low Federal veterinarian salaries as compared with other Federal medical professionals (OGM, 2009, pp. 20-22).
When asked to identify the top three recommendations to strengthen the Federal veterinarian workforce, Dr. DeHaven recommended the implementation of regulations, under the National Veterinary Medical Service Act, that would make student debt repayments tax exempt for veterinarians who are pursuing a food animal practice; the amendment of the Veterinary Public Health Workforce Expansion Act to allow Federal funding to be used for major renovations of veterinary schools to support increased class size; and the creation of a program for fully-paid veterinary scholarships in exchange for Federal service. Dr. Gilsdorf recommended allowing Federal veterinarians to receive the special pay available to Federal medical personnel, providing more access to professional development, and having a mechanism in place to hire private veterinarians to increase the number of Federal veterinarians (OGM,2009, pp. 25-26).
Both government and non-government witnesses touched on the topic of veterinarians who could be called upon to respond should a significant public health or veterinary issue arise. The National Response Framework (NRF) identifies Emergency Support Function (ESF) #8, for public health and medical disasters, or ESF #11, for animal disease or food safety emergencies, as the appropriate response mechanisms. For instance, if operating under ESF #8 and responding to a public health situation with an animal disease component, HHS would likely activate a National Veterinary Response Team, deploy U.S. Public Health Service Veterinarians, and seek assistance from the Veterinary Medical Reserve Corps of the U.S. Army and Air Force. Active duty military veterinarians could also be called upon to respond (OGM,2009, pp. 52-56).
If a response primarily under ESF #11 is needed, USDA, led by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), would take a coordinating role and oversee the use of the National Animal Health Emergency Response Corps (NAHERC). Established in 2001, NAHERC is composed of veterinarians hired as temporary Federal employees to respond to disasters such as exotic disease outbreaks affecting animals (APHIS, 2012). State Animal Response Teams, coordinated outside the Federal government, would provide a local mechanism through which private sector veterinarians could respond to an animal emergency.
Dr. Gilsdorf also suggested a “National Guard-like” system for veterinarians to support greater readiness. Unlike the NAHERC, which relies on veterinarians employed as temporary Federal employees, veterinarians in his proposed system would serve as part-time Federal employees on an ongoing basis. During an emergency, they would then become full-time Federal employees. This would support regular training for participants to better ensure they could meet the challenges of an animal disease outbreak. Additionally, it would provide a more significant financial incentive for private sector veterinarians who could be called away from their practices during periods of emergency (OGM,2009, p. 96).
In 2009, GAO identified vacancy rates as high as 35 percent among veterinarians at slaughter plants.
Image source: USDA
Working Together to Close the Gaps
Shortly after the hearing, Senators Akaka and Voinovich sent a letter to OPM Acting Director Kathie Ann Whipple praising her for the agency’s plan to bring all involved agencies together and asking for a clear path forward. They called for an “ongoing, collaborative ‘veterinary community working group’” that would include stakeholders from inside and outside government. Also, they insisted that more analysis be conducted about the Federal veterinarian shortages and their causes and that a holistic approach be taken that would yield a “strategic plan and objectives, along with an implementation plan” (Akaka & Voinovich, 2009, pp. 1-2).
OPM pressed forward with the meeting it announced at the previous month’s hearing. In a memorandum to Chief Human Capital Officers throughout government, Acting Director Whipple (2009) indicated that participants would discuss potential solutions to the underlying workforce challenges and then develop strategies and a way forward. By June 2010 the Federal Veterinary Workforce Talent Management Advisory Council (TMAC) emerged as the primary interagency group focused on Federal veterinary workforce challenges. It formed three subordinate teams that would focus on emergency planning, workforce planning, and recruiting and retention, and later provide recommendations to the TMAC (Cameron, 2012).
The TMAC formalized its three overarching goals: (1) enhancing efforts to identify the veterinarian workforce needed during emergencies; (2) obtaining a comprehensive understanding of this workforce; and (3) improving its recruiting and retention results (OPM, 2010). In carrying out these responsibilities, the TMAC introduced a first-ever Strategic Workforce Plan, which further clarified the TMAC’s goals (TMAC,2012c, pp. 6). Despite the plan’s clear targeting of the key issues identified by GAO, the TMAC did not create performance measures that could be used to demonstrate progress. A future opportunity for the TMAC could be the development of an implementation plan built around clear, agreed-upon measures.
The TMAC did, however, make some progress in capturing data that could be used in the development of results-focused measures. In 2012, it completed an Internet-based assessment that allowed current Federal veterinarians to provide their input about a range of issues, including leadership, recruitment, and emergency response. With over 1,000 respondents, or a 31 percent response rate among all Federal veterinarians, this assessment has provided current, actionable data to those working to address challenges facing this workforce.
Showing up as the top recommendation, the TMAC (2012a) concluded that Federal agencies with veterinarian shortages should address their own shortage challenges first and then share that information with the TMAC for a government-wide action plan (p. 32). Ultimately, each agency has responsibility for its own workforce, and this recommendation appears to be a prudent one. Unfortunately, the fact that it has taken over three years to come to this recommendation may also reveal unwarranted delays by agencies involved in the TMAC. Moreover, GAO made an almost identical recommendation just a few years earlier that those agencies were supposed to address. Top agency executives, overseeing organizations where shortages persist, should take note and work toward the removal of obstacles to cooperation, both within their own agency, and with the interagency TMAC.
Beyond addressing general veterinary workforce concerns, the assessment revealed homeland security readiness gaps. But some caution is in order. The data was skewed by the current distribution of the Federal veterinarian workforce, with 75 percent of them falling under USDA’s cognizance (TMAC, 2012a, p. 5). And, with USDA’s APHIS having a lead role in responding to animal health emergencies, positive data about veterinarians’ readiness in facing emergency situations should be read with some caution as it may not be generalizable to the entire workforce. Overall, the data does suggest that more attention should be given to readiness matters.
For instance, across government, 21 percent of Federal veterinaries are designated as emergency responders for their agency, while 68 percent would be willing to respond to an animal health emergency. Further, just 24 percent of assessment respondents reported having experience with homeland security emergency response, including animal health, all hazards threats, and training exercises (TMAC,2012a, p. 19). The designation and experience numbers are particularly troubling. Having such a low percentage of veterinarians actually designated as emergency responders could suggest that homeland security is largely an afterthought throughout government. This is further accentuated by the low experience level, which could make it less likely that a ready force could be quickly put in place to counter an animal disease outbreak.
On a more positive note, their high willingness to respond to emergencies shows that many more Federal veterinarians could and should be identified as emergency responders and properly trained. The report recommended that in meeting their veterinarians’ willingness to respond, agencies should recognize the importance of preparedness for animal disease outbreaks. Further, this should be augmented by a “more robust process of agency/stakeholder collaboration to support animal health and public health emergencies” (TMAC,2012a, p. 32). Clearly, process, buy-in, and collaboration are important. But, what is more crucial is a commitment by all involved to agree upon and deliver specific results to benefit the nation’s homeland security.
The respondents’ familiarity with the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and the Incident Command System (ICS) revealed another area ripe for improvement. Only 11 percent reported having emergency or training experience with ICS positions and only a total of six veterinarians – out of over 1,000 respondents – claimed expert level ICS competency. Thirty-two reported having an advanced level of skill, a skill level just below the expert level (TMAC, 2012a, pp. 19-21).
Despite the relatively low skill and experience levels reported by these veterinarians, ICS training is occurring. According to the same report (2012a), approximately 42 percent reported having completed ICS 100 (introductory), 36 percent ICS 200 (supervisory focus), and between 22 and 28 percent ICS/IS 300, 700, and 800 (intermediate, NIMS, and NRF, respectively) (p. 21). IS 400, which is focused on complex incidents, had the lowest completion percentage of approximately 15 percent. This suggests that more hands-on experience, combined with additional exposure to ICS through training, could yield significant increases in Federal veterinarian homeland security capabilities. The TMAC (2012a) made a corresponding recommendation to implement an “interagency veterinary continuing education (training) system” to help ensure the readiness of this workforce (p. 33). A complementary opportunity to this could be the development of specific goals for ICS course completion and practical experience, from the beginner through the expert levels.
Aside from current readiness gaps, a particularly troubling issue is the severe shortfall of veterinarians available to respond to a major animal disease outbreak. According to the modeling and analysis used by the TMAC, there is a shortage of approximately 6,000 veterinarians after 48 days of a multi-state FMD outbreak. This stands in stark contrast to the 250 Federal veterinarians identified as currently deployable. Yet, as the other assessment results have indicated, there could be a far greater response should organizational and training priorities be better aligned to support the homeland security mission. The TMAC recommended the creation of focused plans to bolster agencies’ ability to respond to animal disease outbreaks. Additionally, it advocated the capture of data that shows workforce deployment and where improvements are needed during animal disease outbreaks (TMAC,2012a, p. 32).
Designated as a “top priority” by this report is a recommendation to develop and validate animal disease models to better understand workforce requirements. More specifically, the updating of the North American Animal Disease Spread Model (NAADSM) and Saturation Model (SaM) would provide more information about Federal veterinarian requirements based on the phase of an animal disease response and the activities being conducted (TMAC,2012a, p. 33).
To further the modeling effort, the TMAC provided another report that explored emergency response and post-outbreak response needs. It addressed GAO recommendations to improve the workforce estimates needed in response to a major FMD outbreak while still conducting routine activity. Top conclusions in the report are: (1) a national-scale FMD outbreak would require 6,000 veterinarians, and (2) 880 or more veterinarians would be required to respond to a one region, 79 day outbreak (TMAC, 2012b, p. 2).
These conclusions were considered starting points from which more exploration could be conducted. And, three areas stood out as limitations in this work. First, a new, non-validated SaM tool was used to clarify resource needs under given different scenarios. Second, the national-scale scenario included 44 of 50 states, leaving out “dairy or swine intensive” states that could have made the estimates even larger. Third, the regional FMD outbreak, modeled to occur in Texas, was not generalizable to other states with a different agricultural or commercial profile (TMAC, 2012b, pp. 4-7).
The most startling figure to appear in the report was the 105,043 emergency responders required under a Target Capabilities Listing scenario. Developed by subject matter experts from all levels of government, they evaluated a scenario where over 26 million animals were affected by FMD – an event of catastrophic proportions that would dwarf the U.K.’s 2001 outbreak (TMAC2012b, p. 7). One item to note is that the total number of veterinarians needed for the response was not specifically calculated, and they would be one of many types of responders such as those who staff the incident headquarters, control movement in affected areas, and conduct disease surveillance. Presumably, a number of these responders could have backgrounds other than veterinary medicine, to include public health and law enforcement. However, a large veterinarian presence would be needed to closely manage the millions of affected animals. And, making matters worse, it is unclear what the opportunity costs and risks would be to communities who are dedicating veterinarians and other responders to the FMD crisis.
In Summary: Progress, Lessons Learned, and Opportunities
The ongoing focus and attention of agencies, and in particular participants in the TMAC, has helped set in motion efforts to resolve challenges facing the Federal veterinarian workforce and improve the nation’s ability to respond to a large-scale animal disease outbreak. The TMAC has helped to identify and clarify the specific challenges to a greater degree both across government and back at veterinarians’ home agencies. What is less clear is the road from problem identification and refinement to the delivery of results.
For example, GAO continues to monitor the status of agencies completing the recommended actions found in its 2009 report. As of early May 2013, the only recommendation listed as “closed,” or implemented, on its Website is the one advising OPM to determine whether a government-wide effort is needed to address the Federal veterinarian workforce’s challenges. Among the areas that are still “open,” or unimplemented, are: (1) whether or not FSIS veterinarian shortfalls have been resolved, (2) the development of sufficient pandemic plans, (3) the progress of an interagency task force in examining the spread of animal diseases in wildlife, and (4) the conduct and analysis of post-outbreak workforce assessments.
Outside of the GAO recommendations, APHIS has appeared to make significant progress in enhancing animal disease response capabilities. This includes the development of the Foreign Animal Disease (FAD) Preparedness and Response Plan (FADPReP), conducting exercises, enhancing responder tools, and investing in FMD vaccine research and development (APHIS, personal communication, May 1, 2013). Additionally, this agency has remained vigilant in its defense against animal disease. It investigated 3,735 possible FAD or emerging disease incidents between 2005 and 2012. Approximately 14 percent of those investigations resulted in a confirmed FAD finding (APHIS, 2013, pp. 1-2).
Dr. Gilsdorf, who has since been appointed director of the TMAC, has acknowledged that progress has not been rapid. He pointed out that “the TMAC gets results by working with the agency leaders and other stakeholders… and making recommendations on action items to resolve the issues and gaps identified.” According to him, USDA stands out in the progress it has made in developing workforce plans and procedures to address animal disease outbreaks. He emphasized that the TMAC intends to meet with leaders from other agencies to encourage the development of these plans (Dr. Gilsdorf, personal communication, May 1, 2013).
APHIS offered some insight into the TMAC’s performance and prospects. It mentioned that TMAC governance remains problematic since designated representatives and human capital officer participants have competing priorities. Additionally, the TMAC has less of a voice with the loss of its primary champions on Capitol Hill (APHIS, personal communication, May 1, 2013).
Despite limited results to date, positive momentum has been created which can lead to long-term improvements. In reflecting on the first four years of this effort, a few conclusions about this challenge - and the way forward - can be made. First, homeland security efforts will inevitably come up short without an effective human element in place. Human capital ultimately underlies the success or failure in this realm as in many other areas of activity. Second, having champions on the outside – in this case in another branch of government – helped to make a difference. Third, a broad homeland security training effort could yield a large increase in readiness at a modest cost. Fourth, immediately increasing the number of veterinarians to protect against the effects of a large-scale animal disease outbreak must occur to improve the nation’s homeland security readiness.
Homeland security efforts are largely human efforts, supported by material, logistics, and procedures, to protect against, prevent, and respond to threats to the nation’s critical infrastructure. A primary consequence of this is that processes to align human capacity to homeland security results cannot be overlooked. All this is being considered by the TMAC. At its most basic form, the primary elements that have connected homeland security and human capital needs have included: a clear understanding of what the gaps are; empowered government officials and other professionals furthering refining the problems and proposing actions; and positive congressional leadership and oversight.
The last element cannot be overlooked. Broad human capital challenges facing the government, particularly those that are ongoing and are not marked by a crisis, require the ongoing attention of senior officials in both the legislative and executive branches. A non-adversarial, bipartisan, problem-solving approach, as taken by Senators Akaka and Voinovich, provided much of the impetus for agencies to begin to resolve the issues. Further, they kept politics out and brought instead a steady focus on good management practices, particularly in the realm of human capital management.
Senator Voinovich retired from the Senate at the end of 2010, as did Senator Akaka in 2012. The committee professional staff members who supported their efforts have largely moved on as well. Without these initial proponents, it is unclear what, if any, support Congress will provide to the TMAC’s cause. It is possible that GAO could be asked to conduct another study of the challenges, but the reality is that the current effort can be nurtured with ongoing, bipartisan, and even multi-committee attention from the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Such a collaborative problem solving effort could be used as a model for other complex human capital issues affecting homeland security.
A critical need that has not been fully addressed is the need for the augmentation of the capability level and number of veterinarians who would respond to a catastrophic animal disease incident. The apparent willingness of the Federal veterinarian workforce to respond, coupled with the low numbers who have already received necessary training, signal an excellent opportunity to make the investment in developing this workforce. Currently, online ICS courses offered by DHS’s Federal Emergency Management Agency are free, and additional homeland security training that would incur additional costs can be prioritized and provided to those veterinarians who will have the greatest likelihood of having to respond to an animal disease outbreak. Additionally, they must also be sufficient in number to handle the incident.
The U.K.’s 2001 FMD outbreak demonstrated that a shortage of veterinarians delayed disease control and that it could take approximately two months to surge the appropriate number of veterinarians (NAO, 2002, p. 7). These are lessons that should be taken seriously, specifically in the areas of rapid mobilization and Federal veterinarian employment policies. There are already response programs in place, under ESF #8 and ESF #11, described earlier, that would call up state or private sector veterinarians for surge support in response to an animal disease outbreak. APHIS had some success in building this capacity, having overseen a large growth in NAHERC, from 394 available veterinarians in 2009 to 955 in 2013 (personal communication, May 1, 2013). This certainly can help with the nation’s capacity to respond to an animal disease outbreak. However, the general fragmentation of these existing surge capacity programs and the opportunity to raise the readiness level of Federal veterinarians points the way to a bolder approach.
Dr. Gilsdorf’s proposal to have trained, part-time Federal veterinarian positions throughout the country is worth pursuing and would go a considerable way in filling the need for more available veterinarians when a surge is needed. In implementation this could mean paying a modest amount for part-time veterinarians distributed in higher-risk areas who could be called to full-time service in the event of an animal disease emergency. According to Dr. Gilsdorf, APHIS has made significant strides in recent years signing up private veterinarians to complement its workforce, yet this workforce remains untrained and fails to deliver disease surveillance and surge capacity. What is needed is a “response-ready veterinary field workforce that is well trained in advance to respond when needed” (Dr. Gilsdorf, personal communication, May 1, 2013).
Key in the consideration of this program is how much buying and maintaining a certain amount of readiness costs and how much it decreases outbreak-related risk. As demonstrated by the 2001 U.K. outbreak, costs to society can be quite high. With the often negative rhetoric about the value of Federal workers, it is unclear that even pilot programs of this nature would be embraced. However, having a low-cost program like this provides the country valuable insurance, much like that already found in the national security realm – such as the U.S. Selective Service System for providing defense manpower and the U.S. Maritime Administration’s Maritime Security Program for supporting defense logistics – which allow the nation to respond to a broad range of unplanned for, unanticipated events during times of national emergency. Strategic thinking can surely be combined with national means, however limited, to protect the public against high-risk, unexpected situations.
The processes and lessons learned through the Federal veterinary workforce effort could be adapted or replicated elsewhere to resolve homeland security gaps that have particularly vexing human capital elements. It will require willpower, money, and time. Money is no panacea, but without money, change efforts will likely be significantly constrained. Despite the presence or promise of funding in the past, it has not been enough to identify, address, and fix root cause issues facing the Federal veterinary workforce. Fortunately luck has been on the nation’s side in that it has not had to face a major animal disease outbreak of the scale envisioned by experts or experienced by the U.K. This luck could run out at any moment. This leaves only willpower, armed with greater data and insight, as the prime motivator to make the changes that will prevent or at the very least mitigate the impact of animal disease outbreaks and other related threats to the homeland.
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Joel C. Spangenberg, MA, MLS, MEM, PMP, CHS-V, is a former Surface Warfare Officer (Nuclear) in the U.S. Navy with over a decade of national and homeland-security experience. He served as Subcommittee Deputy Staff Director on the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs and as Special Assistant to the Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs. Currently, he is the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Selective Service System. Mr. Spangenberg is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Old Dominion University, University of Oklahoma, and U.S. Naval War College, and earned a Senior Service College diploma from the U.S. Air War College. A term member of the Council on Foreign Relations, Mr. Spangenberg is particularly interested in homeland-security issues that are international in nature.
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