Readers’ Viewpoint: Effective disaster management requires planning, cooperation
The earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis in Japan have tested the limits of that country’s emergency response plans. During other crises in the United States, such as Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the federal government stepped in to manage the response, but there were often conflicts between local, state and federal agencies in implementing the emergency response. American City & County asked the readers of our weekly e-mail newsletters what could be done to help government emergency responders on all levels work together better, particularly in the event that a disaster as large as the one in Japan hits here. Below are some of the responses.
“Since the events of Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina, the federal government has invested a lot of money in training emergency responders on how to work together in the event of a large-scale event. A big struggle in a large-scale disaster is the interruption of business. Emergency response to such an event does little to address the long-term effects of business interruption. The interruption of business in a community can have a much greater effect than the disaster itself. The loss of income to the people affected and the loss of taxes to the community can cripple a local government for years after the disaster has hit. It will be years or decades before Japan is back on track economically. The same can happen to your community. The faster and more efficiently we can restore business as usual, the faster our communities will recover. The managing government needs to understand this, and plan and prepare for such cascading events.
Most communities have a plan based on the National Incident Management System (NIMS). It is a good system and works well if all the players understand their roles in the big picture. Often times the breakdowns come from egos that don’t want to give up the power to make decisions, or the lack of understanding of the overall goals. In my community, I feel the emergency responders understand their roles. However, the local, county and state elected officials do not. Often times, the police and fire departments are trained and prepared, but it is the mayors and managers [who] don’t understand their role in the overall picture. I doubt that any of the [council members] or elected officials are given a class on what their roles are in the event of a larger emergency. In their day-to-day administration, they are only used to dealing with things that affect their local communities. If more help is needed, you call the state or the federal government, and they will come to the rescue. They will come….eventually.
That is not to say the response is too slow; it just takes time. Every government, no matter what size, should be able to handle the emergencies that they may face for the first few days on their own, or at least understand the foundations that must be laid to support the aid when it comes. Communities must review and TEST their emergency response plans, ensure that they are NIMS compliant, update emergency contact numbers, [and] understand when to call for help and who has the ability to help. Elected officials need to understand that in a wide-scale emergency, other communities are going to be asking for the same types of requests, and the ones who are on the ball and can demonstrate the ability to manage and utilize the resources will get the aid first. In short, I believe that the local government, elected officials and city managers need to get out and seek the training that most of the emergency responders already have to be able to understand emergency management.”
— Christopher Copp, deputy fire chief, Cumberland, Maine
“Emergency response and recovery starts locally and with plans/strategies and engagement of all the relevant partners. To the extent that communications were and are good, and preexisted prior to the disaster, then the success of the various agency responses and mobilization will only be as good as the working relationships are clear, understood and based on mutual respect, [as well as] keeping focused on the bigger picture. Parochialism and turf wars have no place in disaster response, remediation and recovery. Mutual aid, readiness, training and table top exercises involving all the relevant agencies, and public-private partnerships also should precede the real deal. Human nature being what it is, egos and ‘control’ should be left at the door. Communication and clear lines of authority go a long way to cutting through the red tape and [bureaucratization] that many public agencies engage in even in the time of crisis. Remember who we serve, who pays most — if not all — the bills, and the oath of office most of us took when we signed on for these positions we hold.”
— Jay Gsell, county manager, Genesee County, N.Y.
“We have long heard the federal government say, ‘Disasters start at the local level,’ a lesson that took them a very long time to learn. But, ‘Truer words [were] never spoken’ is another axiom that comes to mind here. That means that local governments need to be at the forefront of understanding disaster risks their communities face. They must take definitive action across all executive leadership and all departments to mitigate those risks to the best of their ability; prepare for natural or technological disasters through targeted training and exercises; plan for the responsibilities of caring for their residents and restoring government functions; acquire the support systems they will need to communicate before, during and after these disasters occur; and learn how to access the assistance that may be needed from their state and federal resources.
Local executive leaders and everyone employed in any of their agencies that will be called to respond need to have command of the National Response Framework and its incident command systems so that they are empowered to act when needed and with an understanding of how each part of the response and recovery effort fits with the others. They need to be ready to respond by having a well-trained and well-equipped workforce that knows its mission and responsibilities. They need to be prepared for what may be a long and difficult recovery period unless they take the mitigation, preparedness and response operations seriously, and anticipate escalating those efforts into the recovery period. When local governments are ready, it will make it easier for any other government — whether it is automatic aid, mutual aid or a local emergency that escalates into a state of emergency and a federal disaster declaration — to be ready to come in when needed and act with a safe, effective and efficient effort.”
— Pete Kirby, retired 911 emergency communications supervisor, Fairfax County, Va.