It’s Not Smoke and Mirrors – How to Deal With The Real Biorisk of Wildfire Smoke

Recently, millions of people in the U.S. and Canada were affected by the haze and smoke from more than 100 wildfires burning in Québec. The Québec fires were only a portion of the more than 400 wildfires burning across Canada. High temperatures, unusually dry conditions and lightning strikes combined to start the Québec fires in May. Additionally, accidental human activity is suspected in others across the country.

It’s Not Smoke and Mirrors This Time – It’s Real Biorisk at Work

As the fires burned, prevailing winds carried the smoke across the Northeastern United States, producing extremely unhealthy air. Worried about people breathing in harmful particles too small to see, health officials warned everyone to stay indoors, recirculate the air in their homes and use air conditioning and air purifiers whenever possible. Health alerts recommended wearing N95 masks to offer “some” protection from those particles.

So what’s the risk to people?

Wildfire smoke is more toxic than normal air pollution. It can contain soil, chemicals, metals, plastics, carcinogens and other harmful substances. It contains particulate matter (PM) that is smaller than dust, pollen, mold or the diameter of a human hair. PM can penetrate homes and other buildings and is a threat because it is usually too small to see.

Some of the immediate health effects from wildfire smoke include coughing, trouble breathing, stinging eyes, scratchy throat, runny nose, wheezing and shortness of breath, chest pain, headaches, asthma attacks and tiredness.

People with respiratory issues and cardiovascular issues are at higher risk of health problems and even death while breathing wildfire smoke than they are normally. Death rates across entire populations increase during periods of wildfire smoke exposure, so everyone should view themselves at risk from this.  Hospitalizations, ER visits and physician office visits increase during periods of wildfire smoke exposure, underscoring the severity of this biorisk. Exposure to wildfire smoke also can increase rates of lung cancers and brain tumors.

Wildfire smoke is a biorisk

Biorisks, such as smoke from wildfires, create physical world threats that often combine to impact security for workforce, inventory, supply chain and business continuity. Biorisk is new to many senior security leaders but will soon become an important part of enterprise risk portfolios.

You already know some biorisks – infectious disease events – from the work you did during the pandemic, and smoke is one of several environmental biorisks that include heat waves, air quality problems and flooding. Infrastructure events create biorisks and include electrical grid outages, hospital evacuations and boil water notices. Geopolitical events such as refugee movements, civil unrest and war are also biorisks.

How has your enterprise responded to the threat of wildfire smoke?

The Canadian wildfires are hundreds of miles away from most of the places affected in the U.S., but because of the size of the smoke plume, assets and employees could be affected from Maine to Alabama and as far west as the Great Lakes. Here are just some of the issues to consider:

  • Do you have access to trusted information about weather-related emergencies, such as wildfires, heat, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes or storms?
  • Do you have connections to experts who can recommend appropriate actions during emergencies?
  • If the fires are close to your facilities, do you have plans to help employees who are forced to evacuate?
  • Do you have plans for air filtration in offices, manufacturing plants, warehouses and other work sites?
  • Do you have HR plans in place if employees are forced to miss work because of health concerns?
  • Do you have alternate plans if your employees are forced to cancel or delay air travel?
  • If fires affect fuel supplies, are you prepared to manage lower fuel availability or higher fuel prices?

No One is Coming to Save You

Your job includes protecting physical structures, assets and network capabilities, but it especially means you are responsible for keeping your employees safe. People are the key to business continuity. Their well-being is the number-one priority and is essential to economic security.

Adopting a biorisk strategy is a best practice for senior security leaders. The earlier you identify gaps and develop biorisk management plans to fill them, the more resilient your enterprise will be. Also, your biorisk management plans should involve your entire workforce, just like your cybersecurity plans do. Starting to plan now will give you a solid foundation for actions in the future.

The Public Health Company Provides Early Expert Intelligence

PHC Global has developed its Pharos Platform to act as an early warning intelligence system. Pharos can work independently or connect to your existing systems via an API to give you a head start on working your plan. PHC Global experts are also on hand with alerts and guidance so you can determine when action is required – and when it’s not.

If you’d like to learn more about biorisks and PHC Global, view this short introductory video.

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Dave Komendat retired as the Vice President and Chief Security Officer for The Boeing Company, a role he held for 14 years of his 36 years within the security profession. Komendat was responsible for the company’s global security and fire protection policy and procedures, site security, executive protection, supply chain and aviation security, structural and aircraft fire protection, government and proprietary information security, classified cyber security, strategic intelligence, international security, business continuity and disaster preparedness, Global Security Operations Center, and security background investigations.


Komendat was also the lead Boeing interface for both national and international security policy engagement with numerous government and industry advisory groups. He represented Boeing as past co-chairman and current board member on the Domestic Security Alliance Council, past President of The International Security Management Association and served as a member of the Threats and Information Committee for the Overseas Security Advisory Council.  


Komendat is the founder and President of DSKomendat Risk Management Services, he also serves on several company advisory boards and holds board leadership roles with several non-profit organizations whose missions are to protect people globally, including Hostage U.S. and The International Security Foundation. Dave is also a Strategic Engagement Advisor for the Office of Private Sector within the FBI. In 2018, Dave was awarded the Director’s Award for Exceptional Public Service by FBI Director Christopher Wray.


Komendat graduated from California State University at Long Beach and also attended and completed the executive development program at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

Dr. Carter Mecher serves as the Medical Advisor for the Public Health Company. 


Prior to joining PHC, Carter served as a Senior Medical Advisor for the Office of Public Health in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. In this position, Dr. Mecher played a key role in the COVID-19 outbreak response. 


From 2005 to 2011, he served as the Director of Medical Preparedness Policy at the White House Homeland Security Council and National Security Staff. He was a principal author of the National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza Implementation Plan. In this capacity, he helped set policy and devise strategies to mitigate the consequences of a pandemic and promote pandemic preparedness. 


Before serving at the White House, Dr. Mecher was the Chief Medical Officer for the Southeast VA Network in Atlanta from 1996 to 2005. In this role he oversaw the healthcare delivery for veterans in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. 


Dr. Mecher is a co-author of Lessons from the COVID War, an in-depth examination of the U.S. response to the pandemic. In addition, he is featured in Michael Lewis’ book The Premonition.


Dr. Mecher received his medical degree from Chicago Medical School and completed a residency in internal medicine and a fellowship in critical care medicine at Los Angeles County/USC Medical Center.

Dr. Joe DeRisi is a Scientific Advisor to PHC. He is one of the early pioneers of DNA microarray technology and whole genome expression profiling; he is nationally recognized in the field of genomic epidemiology for designing a first-of-its-kind initiative for COVID-19. Joe currently serves as Co-President of Chan Zuckerberg BioHub and is a professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics at University of California, San Francisco. He has a Bachelor of Arts in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from University of California, Santa Cruz, and a Ph.D. in Biochemistry from Stanford University.

Dr. Sumiko Mekaru is the Vice President of Research and Innovation at The Public Health Company. Dr. Mekaru is an epidemiologist operating at the intersection of traditional epidemiology and technology and leading cross-disciplinary teams to solve challenges in public health. Prior to joining PHC, Dr. Mekaru was a Life Sciences Strategy, Policy, and Operations Expert at Booz Allen Hamilton where she recently led the development of COVID-19 forecasting models for disease transmission, resource utilization, and critical events for the Department of Defense. Dr. Mekaru has also led health technology teams at Epidemico and Boston Children’s Hospital, creating innovative health surveillance tools. She has published extensively on infectious disease outbreak monitoring, modeling, and surveillance. Dr. Mekaru holds a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from Tufts University and a PhD in epidemiology from Boston University.

Justin McIntosh is an experienced professional with 10+ years in management and 8+ years in software engineering. Currently, he is the Vice President of Operations at The Public Health Company. His journey began in college when he co-founded Safe Site, a utility services company, which expanded to operations in three states with over 300 employees. After a successful exit, he founded Docusite, a construction risk management application, diving into software engineering. Despite challenges with Docusite, Justin’s passion for technology led him to various roles before landing at The Public Health Company.


In his current role, Justin is tackling the challenging task of improving operations in a remote environment. He is dedicated to his role and is always open to sharing experiences and insights. He is committed to nurturing effective teams, improving operations, and shaping innovative solutions. His focus is on creating a positive, growth-oriented environment and mentoring emerging leaders, reflecting his commitment to collective success.

Lori Sutton is the Vice President of Marketing at The Public Health Company. She is a strategic marketing visionary and global brand leader with 20+ years of progressive experience in B2B/B2C SaaS software marketing in large enterprise and SMB markets. She has expertise in leading strategy development, overhauling brands, launching products and driving growth in target verticals. Prior to joining PHC, Lori was the Vice President of Marketing and Growth at SMS-Magic, where she led the global GTM strategy, orchestrated a brand overhaul, developed new messaging and positioning and launched revenue generating campaigns. Lori held marketing and management roles at Model N, Bullet Point Network, Saba and other SaaS software companies where she focused on marketing strategy, business objectives and analytics to drive revenue.

Lori holds an MFA from California Institute of the Arts, a BFA from Virginia Commonwealth University, an Executive Education in Corporate Strategy at Harvard Business School and continues coursework at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Craig Katsuyama is the Vice President of Administrative Services at PHC. He brings extensive experience building companies from the ground up and was instrumental to the launch of IEX Group in 2012, which challenged the status quo of financial markets and created an entirely new stock exchange that works for all investors. Craig spent the last eight years at IEX where he built and oversaw the accounting and finance teams before transitioning to help establish IEX’s Event Stream business, a data messaging platform that applies IEX’s core technology to areas outside of finance. Craig graduated from Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, Canada with a Bachelor of Commerce in Accounting and Economics.

Dr. David Fisk is the Chief Medical Officer at The Public Health Company. Prior to joining PHC, Dr. Fisk served as an Infectious Disease Specialist at Sansum Clinic.  He serves as the Medical Director of Infection Prevention and Control at Cottage Health, leading the infection control team at Cottage, working with physicians and hospital leaders on the COVID Incident Command Center to ensure the highest level of preparation and care for patients. In early March 2020, before the first confirmed COVID-19 case in Santa Barbara County, Dr. Fisk advised that the virus was already spreading locally before community members were observing symptoms.


Dr. Fisk completed his medical degree from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and his Internal Medicine residency and Infectious Diseases fellowship at University of Michigan Medical Center. He is board certified in Infectious Diseases and a Fellow of the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

Chris Latko is the Chief Technology Officer at PHC. He joined as a Principal Software Architect where he played a key role in building out the platform. He has over 25 years experience in the technology sector holding positions at companies he started, Fortune 500 companies, and a multitude of startups both in the United States and Japan. He has spent the last decade designing, refining, and reimplementing architectures for hypergrowth startups such as Boxfish, Paxata (acquired by DataRobot), Banjo, and Globality. Chris earned two patents for designing a streaming data ingestion/data normalization platform.

Kendall Burman serves as PHC’s General Counsel and Chief Operating Officer. Prior to joining PHC, Burman held leadership roles at Alloy, a data and technology start-up for the progressive political market. Burman previously served as the Deputy General Counsel for Strategic Initiatives at the Department of Commerce and as Associate White House Counsel and Special Assistant to the President in the Obama Administration. She was also a counsel in the cybersecurity and data privacy practice at Mayer Brown and served as Chief Staff Counsel for President Obama’s 2008 campaign.


Burman is a graduate of Bowdoin College and received her J.D. from the University of Chicago where she was an editor of the law review. She was also was a fellow at both the New America Foundation and the Center for Democracy and Technology.

Dr. Charity Dean is the CEO, Founder and Chairman of The Public Health Company, a venture-backed Silicon Valley technology startup. 


In August 2020 Dr. Dean founded PHC, envisioning a commercial-grade global biosecurity platform to empower enterprises to manage biorisk at scale. Dr. Dean’s obsession with building a new solution was born out of 24 years in public health and the recognition that Silicon Valley innovations in artificial intelligence and machine learning could birth this entirely new capability. Two years later PHC PharosTM is a game-changer for numerous businesses providing real-time, dynamic risk management across their global footprint and assets. 


Dr. Dean founded PHC having served as the Assistant Director for the California Department of Public Health where she was part of the executive team under Governor Newsom running the COVID-19 pandemic response. She co-founded and co-chaired California’s COVID-19 Testing Task Force and under her leadership, California went from ranking last in the nation for testing to first in three months. In 2019, Dr. Dean served as Acting State Public Health Officer overseeing 4,300 staff with an annual operating budget of $3.5 billion. 


Before her move to statewide office, she served as the Public Health Officer for Santa Barbara County and oversaw a myriad of disease outbreaks and biological threats; she also served as attending physician for TB, HIV, and homeless medicine at the Santa Barbara Health Care Centers. 


Dr. Dean was awarded Physician of the Year in 2018 by the Central Coast Medical Association and honored as one of the Women of the Year by the California State Legislature.


Dr. Dean is a co-author of Lessons from the COVID War. Her work during the pandemic is the focus of Michael Lewis’ book The Premonition. Dr. Dean has shared her insights about the danger of biological threats and the changes we must make before the next crisis in a number of interviews and podcasts.


Dr. Dean holds a Doctor of Medicine and Master of Public Health and Tropical Medicine from Tulane University and a Bachelor of Science in Microbiology from Oregon State University.

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