Pandemic Perspective: Local officials are serving community well with response to Covid-19

Posted 3 May 2020 at 12:35 pm

‘Our County leaders and department heads have made some difficult decisions since this National Emergency was declared and moving forward, have some additional painful choices to make in the coming days.’ – Scott Schmidt

(Editor’s Note: Scott Schmidt has been an Orleans County coroner since 1990, and the chief coroner since 1997. He also works as a funeral director with the Mitchell Family Funeral Homes.  He is serving his 12th year as President of the NYS Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners and is also a diplomat of the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators.  Schmidt serves as a Mortuary Officer on the Victim Identification Team with the US Dept. of HHS/National Disaster Medical System/Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team.)

By Scott Schmidt

Scott Schmidt

As an emergency responder in various capacities since 1984, I’ve been a volunteer firefighter, a certified first responder, and an ambulance driver.  I’ve also been a “last responder” so to speak, as a NYS licensed funeral director since 1984, a county coroner since 1990 and a member of the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services National Disaster Medical System’s Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team (DMORT) since 1996.

I served as a training officer for a Regional Team with members from New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands.  My current Federal Position as a special government intermittent employee, is on the Victim Identification Team or VIC.  The VIC is a specialty unit within DMORT which interviews the families of disaster victims in order to glean personal information in hopes of obtaining a positive identification.

I’ve responded to 4 major mass fatality incidents and have been part of the working operation as well as the administrative side of things as well. To say that there is major coordination between local, County, State and Federal agencies when a National Emergency/Disaster is declared, would be an understatement.

It isn’t all smooth sailing and what the public sees is the result of many disagreements, much frustration, little sleep, many egos being crushed, many ideas having to be molded into what’s the best one for a successful mission and smooth transition back to the local government.  All incidents start at the local level, move up the chain of command to the County level, the State level and then the Federal level. Ultimately, at the conclusion of the incident, the control returns back to the local level.

We find ourselves in the midst of a global pandemic and a national emergency. Command and control is shared between multiple agencies who must work together for the greater good of the community. Covid-19 has put many emergency plans into operation. The County Offices of Emergency Management throughout the State have been putting in request for Personal Protective Equipment as well as other supplies and equipment for weeks now and are slowly receiving those assets from partners around the State, who are receiving assets from the Federal partners.

All agencies are using the Incident Command System (ICS) and it’s a system that’s tried and true. Our local responders are trained in the ICS system and are now introducing some civilians and public officials on how it works and how to integrate others into the system. What is different about this particular response is the amount of, and types of people who have been put into the mix, working in the ICS for the first time.

I am still part of many State and Federal Mass Fatality Committees, and have leadership roles on the State and local level with regards to Mass Fatalities and Coroner/Medical Examiner issues. For the past several weeks, I’ve been privileged to participate in 3-4 conference/video calls per day receiving situation updates of what’s going on throughout the State with fatalities due to Covid-19.

As part of the NYS Department of Homeland Security Mass Fatality Task Force call each day at 2 p.m., I hear various officials from around the State give reports on cemetery issues, hospital storage issues, funeral director issues, crematory problems and hospital/medical staff issues regarding PPE and storage of remains. I also participate in the video call weekly for the International Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners where we discuss the trends in testing, protocols for death certification and issues regarding local officials from around the nation. And to finish the week, I participate in the Orleans County Elected Official Update Call on Saturday mornings.

Photo by Tom Rivers: Scott Schmidt, Orleans County’s chief coroner, was keynote speaker during a Sept. 11, 2017 service at the courthouse lawn.

The reason I’m writing this piece is to recognize and praise the many people who have stepped up to the plate, jumping into the ICS system enthusiastically, and exceeding all expectations.  Additionally, I write this to publicly acknowledge and thank all our elected local and State representatives who have gone above and beyond their duties to the residents of Orleans County.

Referring back to the Orleans County Elected Official update calls, Assemblyman Steve Hawley, Assemblyman Mike Norris and Senator Rob Ortt have all had opportunities to speak and brief us what the situation in Albany is.

Public Health Director Paul Pettit has provided daily video conferences detailing the statistics of where Orleans County stands in the effort to stop the spread of the Coronavirus. He has provided up-to-date, open, honest and forthright information at every turn. His delivery of a very difficult subject matter has been calm and reassuring.

Dale Banker, Director of the Office of Emergency Management, gets most of this problem dumped into his lap as he and his staff coordinate the response County-wide. It falls on his Office to arrange for PPE, and other necessary supplies and equipment to be supplied to Orleans County Agencies and the Sheriff’s Department. In addition, he is at the same time managing his normal duties of all the Fire and EMS responses.

Listening to other County and State leaders on other calls, I can honestly say that our local and State representatives speak with passion, with honesty and with conviction where as others appear to sound like they are just doing their jobs as they normally would.

Our leaders are encouraging and comforting in the delivery of information, which is so needed in a time like this. Not only are the words they deliver compelling and heart-felt but, they (our leaders,) back them up with their actions. They are in my opinion, also heroes in this pandemic, second to none and unparalleled by any other representatives that we hear from or see on TV.  We are so lucky and fortunate to have them in our corner as are ALL New Yorkers. Our County leaders and department heads have made some difficult decisions since this National Emergency was declared and moving forward, have some additional painful choices to make in the coming days.

They have remained vigilant and have gone above and beyond their duties in trying to keep the status quo and by staying ahead of the fall-out from this pandemic. It has always been my honor to serve with them, but particularly now during this crisis, I’m in awe of their dedication to the residents of Orleans County.

Legislative Chairman Lynne Johnson has finished the weekly Elected Official calls with a message of hope, delivered with an upbeat tenor, and extolling the virtues of her entire team of legislators and department heads. She has praised County workers for the sacrifices they’ve made and has given credit to County residents for doing their part in stopping the spread of this virus.

True leadership starts at the top but works equally throughout, and with the rank and file. Orleans County is truly blessed to have representatives and leaders such as Steve Hawley, Mike Norris, Rob Ortt, Paul Pettit, Dale Banker and Lynne Johnson and many others.  God bless them as we move forward and God bless America as we weather the storm with people like them leading us during these stressful times.

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