As a Result of Lessons Learned, BNET Shifts Focus of Its Essential Employee Identification Program

Peter Picarillo, President and CEO, Business Network of Emergency Resources, Inc. (BNET) 

Amid the surging COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, a marked shift in the way events were unfolding emerged, mainly how both the government and the private sector were managing the event. 

From the government’s perspective, politicians took center stage, and health commissioners were nearby.  But where were the emergency managers, law enforcement, and the state guard?  All traditional participants in planning, security and logistics seemed relegated behind the scenes, not important enough for prime-time press conferences.

How orders were conceived and formulated was anybody’s guess, depending on what state someone resided in.  More important, the appearance of control often seemed more important than the order itself.  The authority of local-elected officials in some home-rule states was usurped by gubernatorial authority.  Moreover, directives often conflicted among federal, state, and local governments, adding to the overall confusion.  For the first time, with a national election approaching, Americans witnessed the full-on politicizing of an emergency. 

For the first time, Americans were faced with a massive nationwide shelter-in-place emergency and a need for, or at least the appearance of, effective hands-on management by the government.  Terms like “essential employee” and “essential business” would take on new meanings, and “work from home” became the new norm.  Would the COVID-19 pandemic gauge how emergencies are managed in the future?

In the private sector, businesses were challenged to maintain operations, while staff remained at home, distracted by homeschooling, or battling illness.  Supply chains were disrupted, and entire segments of the economy were basically shut down.  Businesses once deemed nonessential became critical to community survival.  The definition of an essential employee was turned on its head, with employees previously deemed nonessential unexpectedly vital, and vice versa. 

BNET Responds to the Emergency Management Needs of Both the Government and the Private Sector

All of these factors impacted the way BNET was doing business.  The not-for-profit Business Network of Emergency Resources (BNET) has prided itself on raising awareness at the government level of the critical importance that business plays in community disaster recovery.  BNET’s innovative Corporate Emergency Access System (CEAS) provides a means to overcome barriers to facility access during such crises.  As an intrinsic part of the emergency management process, the business community has provided survival lifelines to communities during and following emergencies.  Therefore, it is only natural that business and government work together during times of crisis.

CEAS has always been an exemplar of public-private cooperation.  It is an essential employee identification program that provides credentials to personnel deemed essential to business operations.  CEAS’s founding principle is to support business recovery to maintain the economic engine that drives cities and communities.  BNET’s most significant achievement over the years has been creating awareness at the government level about this crucial relationship that every government and its emergency management agency should have with respective business communities.  CEAS was the first program of its kind, surviving for over twenty years, thanks to the businesses and the governments that understand the need for this partnership.  As it has done from day one, CEAS continues to be offered to governments at no cost.

The pandemic, however, began to alter many of the paradigms CEAS was built on.

The CEAS program is used to assist businesses in sustaining essential functions and to expedite recovery until normalcy returns following a crisis.  The government uses CEAS to remove roadblocks to maintaining critical business function by providing a common essential employee identification that allows essential personnel to enter areas restricted to the general public due to the emergency.  CEAS was never considered a “business as usual” tool, that is, until now. 

CEAS had historically been viewed in a more apocalyptic sense of evacuated areas, destruction, lost essential services, and damaged infrastructure.  The pandemic was different; the threat was invisible.  The damage was being inflicted on individuals, which was damaging not only businesses and the economy but also people’s ability to sustain themselves and their communities.  Businesses needed to survive, to help a sheltered-in-place population survive.  Given the historic nature of the program as a pre-event, preparedness solution, CEAS seemed out of position to manage the needs of a continuously evolving event and ever-increasing demand. 

From Critical to Essential, Why the CEAS Shifted Focus

Previously the perception of a critical industry had been defined by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) of the Department of Homeland Security.  There are sixteen critical infrastructure sectors, which represent the pillars of the national economy and critical lifelines for the American public.  While this still hold true, the pandemic made them seem almost myopic.  Suddenly, local small businesses became a more prominent focus of day-to-day survival.  As a result, simple commodities became scarce, and Americans learned some valuable lessons about the supply chain that they are still feeling the effects of today.  Everything changed when the population were forced to change the way they lived. 

With the looming threat of shutdowns and curfews, businesses doubled down on identifying their essential personnel, not just for recovery purposes but also for sustaining necessary ongoing operations.

At the start of the pandemic, BNET saw an enrollment spike in jurisdictions that supported CEAS.  Employers wanted something that appeared official in the hands of their essential personnel in the event of lockdowns or they were denied access denials.  Even companies outside the official participating areas wanted in.  Overnight, CEAS had to transition from being a pre-event program to an on-demand program. 

Looking back, the government wanted the ability to limit movement while avoiding lockdowns if possible.  With the looming threat of shutdowns and curfews, businesses doubled down on identifying their essential personnel, not just for recovery purposes but also for sustaining necessary ongoing operations.  Phrases like “essential travel only” and “essential employees of essential businesses” became the buzz phrases of the pandemic.  But if a lockdown occurred, how would public safety officials know who was essential without something in their hands that stated intent and purpose? 

Given today’s political sensitivity, there is a more frequent “implied” use of the program without naming it directly.  This sensitivity is not because people do not believe in the concepts of the program, but there is a reluctance to create the negative optics of a named group being given privileges, exclusive of others.  CEAS has never been about creating exclusivity, only about creating a process to quickly identify essential personnel within an organization.  The goal has always been to assist public safety officials in making informed access management decisions.  At the height of the pandemic, it was never an issue of access but instead about restricting population density to reduce the transmission of the virus.  In other words, the government only wanted people away from their homes, if they needed to be.  In this case, businesses were performing an essential service.

When BNET partnered with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the State of Rhode Island to provide the CEAS program, both states made it clear that government officials did not want the added responsibility to “activate” the program by making special announcements during a crisis.  To that concern, BNET adopted an “always-on” concept, where CEAS credentials would be always valid as essential employee identification.  In turn, the state would support the program by adopting a plan and educating government and law enforcement officials to allow them the discretion to accept CEAS credentials when they saw fit.  This formed the genesis of the evolution of CEAS. 

As a result of the changing climate, BNET has refocused the CEAS program to function more effectively, using readily available technologies to create the flexibility needed in today’s world.  To accomplish this, BNET is re-energizing the CEAS program in several ways.

  • CEAS as Essential Employee Identification.  De-emphasize CEAS as an Access Control Program and more of an Essential Employee Identification program.  Employers can assign credentials to employees deemed “Essential.” within the constraints of the program.
  • Just-in-Time Credentialing:  BNET will introduce new Virtual Credentials, including self-printed vehicle dashboard placards that can be sent directly to the end-user and stored on a smartphone in a just-in-time fashion.  
  • A single-credential system:  BNET will consolidate into a single credential system that is less address dependent and more function dependent. 
  • Credential Redesign:  New credential design will support program changes and allow cross-jurisdictional interoperability.   
  • Removal of program “activation” requirements: Simplify all programs to be “always active” so as not to overburden government decision-makers during a crisis.
  • Improving IT infrastructure: Will provide enhanced security and agility on an expanded platform.
  • Simplify government program acceptance and use: Limit the potential of negative political optics of exclusivity and allow it to be used in conjunction with other government defined metrics. 

With the ongoing pandemic challenges, it is evident that private sector businesses still have an urgency to identify their essential employees to prevent them from being detained or denied access to company facilities.  This need is universal; regardless of the crisis, only the definition of “essential employee” changes with the event. 

It is also evident that the government now requires an unbiased means of enforcing access management protocols with as little formality as possible.  Accepting CEAS credentials as an acceptable form of essential employee identification is an immense help to achieving governmental needs.

After twenty years, the baseline realities that fostered the emergence of the CEAS program are still relevant.  Like any journey, the landscape is constantly changing.  BNET’s latest program improvements seek to address the challenges facing today’s emergency management, regardless of the hazard.

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