Ready for anything? Disaster planning is ongoing
I am sure it was a coincidence that the deadline to submit our county's emergency management plan to the state coincided with the first anniversary of Hurricane Sandy. From my perspective, I'm glad that the dates lined up the way they did. I review a lot of plans and documents every week, and it can be easy to become complacent in the task. With all of the news coverage of last year's disaster fresh in my mind, I found myself scrutinizing our own plan with a greater sense of urgency. While it is important that our plan meet the state's minimum requirements, it is far more important that it actually work in the case of some disaster.
During the time that I have worked in local government, I've seen a lot of improvements in emergency planning. For many years, planning seemed to revolve around some specific predicted disaster. When computer experts predicted that stoplights would go dark and airplanes would fall out of the sky on Jan. 1, 2000, government spent significant time and money planning for the disaster. I remember going to my family's New Year's Eve party that year with a large ring binder full of disaster plans and my “brick” style flip phone ready to go to work if the predictions came true. In retrospect, I'm not sure why I ever thought the cell phone would work in the crisis. I was just grateful that I didn't have to spend the evening in the city's emergency operations center.
When the Y2K crisis passed, my emergency ring binder gathered dust on some bookshelf until the avian flu scare prompted another round of planning. After years of such fits and starts, the state began leading a more comprehensive approach to emergency planning. The plan that I reviewed late last month was our comprehensive emergency management plan, which goes by the acronym CEMP; there are a lot of acronyms in the field of emergency planning.
Walworth County's CEMP was prepared by sheriff's office Lt. John Ennis. Since 2002, the sheriff's office has been responsible for leading our emergency management effort. The CEMP is the county's game plan to prepare for, respond to, mitigate and recover from emergencies and disasters.
Considering that I usually lack foresight to leave the house with an umbrella on a cloudy day, I'm glad that folks with better imaginations than mine lead our disaster planning. An important part of that planning is to be able to think “outside of the box” and pose appropriate “what if” scenarios as in, what if a tornado caused major damage throughout the county? Tornadoes are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the mayhem that emergency planners dream up. Periodically, various government leaders are brought together to conduct “tabletop exercises” to respond to these simulated disasters. While the scenarios always are unpleasant to imagine, tabletop exercises often point out the need to purchase certain equipment, provide additional training to workers or enact procedures to more effectively respond to a crisis.
I have been involved in a few tabletop exercises, and I always end up learning something when they are finished. Some of the more interesting dilemmas that arise during these simulations, from my perspective, include:
•Availability of workers. We sometimes take for granted that our workforce always will be available during a time of crisis. Our staffing needs are exacerbated by the fact that the county has a number of 24-hour-a-day responsibilities, including caring for nursing home residents and guarding prisoners at our jail. It is one thing to say that employees simply can work around the clock when disaster strikes and quite another to actually implement such a plan. These workers have their own child care and family obligations to address. Planning for a pandemic is one of the more frustrating scenarios. With schools closed and a high percentage of our workforce ill, keeping basic services operating would be a challenge.
•Continuity of government. Responding to a major crisis would undoubtedly necessitate skipping procedures that are now in place to govern everyday situations. While cutting through a certain amount of “red tape” would expedite a disaster response, that red tape exists for a reason; deterring waste and fraud are two of them. Good procedures should provide leaders the flexibility to purchase needed equipment and supplies during a crisis, but still maintain appropriate checks and balances.
•Too much of a good thing. People tend to be generous in the aftermath of the crisis, offering to donate food, supplies, and even their own services to help victims. Without proper coordination, however, all of that help actually can hinder recovery efforts. While the county has hundreds of loyal volunteers, organizing the efforts of hundreds or thousands more, on short notice, and distributing donated funds and supplies would be a new experience.
The county's CEMP is meant to be a living document. In the upcoming month, staff and elected officials will be reviewing the plan and posing their own “what if” questions. Even the best planning can't prevent a natural disaster from occurring. Good planning can, however, improve the county's response should one occur.
Dave Bretl is the Walworth County administrator. Contact him at (262) 741-4357 or visit www.co.walworth.wi.us.