Be prepared. The motto that scouts live by — trying to anticipate all possible scenarios and how to respond — is not only a good motto for them, but for municipalities as well. Having an emergency preparedness plan in place is vital to a community’s ability to know how to respond when disaster strikes.
According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the primary goals of an emergency preparedness plan is to protect the health and safety of emergency responders and the public; protect public and private properties and the environment; and minimize disruption to the community.
The type of disasters communities deal with most frequently fall under the natural disaster heading — think tornadoes, hurricanes and wildfires. Therefore, these are the disasters they’re most prepared for. The best preparation is often a healthy memory of the last time disaster struck.
Moore has been hit with five major tornadoes in five years. The EF5 that struck on May 20, 2013, left 24 people dead and over 200 injured. Several of the fatalities were children from Plaza Towers Elementary School.
One parent who lost a daughter when the schools’ walls collapsed said in a recent television broadcast that she thought the school was one of the safest places for her children to be during the tornado. Since then, tornado storm shelters have been built in every school that didn’t have one.
City Manager Stephen Eddy said that Moore’s emergency personnel now conducts exercises with schools and hospitals to prepare for a similar event.
“We have a very well-educated citizenry of what storms can do,” he said. “We’ve had enough real live events here that we get our training in the school of hard knocks.”
For many communities, that “school of hard knocks” training extends to mass transportation incidents like train derailments and multiple-car crashes, and acts of mass violence and terrorism such as school shootings and public venue attacks.
Dumont, located in Bergen County, N.J., is sometimes referred to as a suburb of Manhattan because of the cities’ proximity. Dumont conducts exercises every month, in every school, for active shooter situations, evacuation drills and more, said Office of Emergency Management Coordinator, School Security Coordinator and Police Captain Michael Conner. “We do very well on that end. The school district has bought into the need for emergency drills.” OEM is involved with and supervises those drills.
“We’re very well-prepared, but you can never be fully prepared. You think you have a great mousetrap until someone comes along and builds a better one.”
The public is kept aware during emergencies through social media. Capt. Conner said the city and OEM have a Facebook page that links to Twitter and “allows us to get the information out in a timely fashion.”
Whitfield County, Ga.
Claude Craig, president of Emergency Management Services in Whitfield County, said his local municipalities of Dalton, Tunnel Hill and Varnell all work well together on preparedness and response — a critical factor, in his opinion.
The cities partner to conduct various community awareness events, which involves setting up a table at local building supply stores during Lightning Awareness Week, Severe Storm Awareness Week and similarly appropriate times to educate the public. Many of Whitfield County’s disasters are weather-related, but because they have several factories that use chemicals, HazMat is also a concern.
The community is asked to become involved in preparedness plans. Representatives from various businesses and organizations attend planning meetings. Manufacturers that meet certain criteria have to have a risk management plan in place for their specific facilities as well, and once a year Craig, along with the local fire department and HazMat teams, look at those plans and conduct exercises at their facilities.
Whitfield County was the first county in the state and among the first in the nation, to conduct a PreparAthon, according to Craig. Last year was the first, and it touched 36,000 people. It took place over three days, with the focus of the first day being businesses and schools; then community disaster awareness; followed by faith organizations and churches. Officials went out to different areas, including a carpet manufacturing plant, school and fire department, reviewed their plans and then exercised the plan. An annual HazMat transportation exercise involving everyone in the community also takes place.
“We throw everything into it. It helps us see where our strengths and our weaknesses are,” Craig said.“We exercise together, we plan together, we get the citizens involved.
An added dimension to this year’s PreparAthon will be fundraising. A telethon will encourage people to call in and verify their information for the “Code Red” emergency notification system, or to sign up. Landline telephones will automatically be included; but cellphone users have to opt in.
Code Red is used to notify the public if there is an emergency. Vital information like street closures, due to flooding, are shared as are warnings that folks in a certain neighborhood need to “shelter in” because of a potential chemical leak. Multiple public service announcements appearing in local print and broadcast media encourage people to have a plan at home and a kit ready. “We ask they prepare to be self-sustaining for 72 hours because it may take that long to get to them,” he said.
Changing of the guard
Emergency management personnel are charged with maintaining the continuity of established emergency plans in spite of the fact that elected officials do change. In Dumont’s case, “It’s a matter of educating the newly elected official about what we do, how we do it, why we do it and how we pay for it,” said Capt. Conner.
From an operational standpoint, little changes. The only time the city’s mayor and council get involved is when they have to declare a local emergency. They’re involved in the preplanning for major events, of course, and they approve the purchase of items; but they need to be aware of the plan, review it and make any recommendations for changes.
“The whole plan falls on the shoulders of OEM, and we have to get approval from county emergency management and the state police,” Capt. Conner said. The emergency plan is updated every four years.
Craig agreed that maintaining an emergency plan during leadership transitions is mainly a matter of educating the new officials. Plans should be updated annually to reflect those changes, and also so current contact information is included.