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Preparing now for disaster later

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Catherine W. Idzerda
May 14, 2014

LAKE GENEVA—Here's the first thing you need to know about emergency management: When things get really, really bad, the fire department is not going to have time to deliver bottled water.

On Wednesday, the city of Lake Geneva and members of its business community hosted a workshop on emergency preparedness.

The scenario? A city-wide power outage, complete with a lake of running water, opportunity looting, hindered or crashed cellphone capability due to a surge in demand, and public safety buildings and hospitals operating on emergency power only.

“In emergency management, it's 'I'll get you and your little dog, too,'” said Cregg Reuter, exercise officer for Wisconsin Emergency Management. “We're going to take your lights, we're going to take out your water, we're going to take out your streets.”

Before getting down to specifics, Reuter explained the role of public safety officials and why your request for a case of bottled watered will be low on their lists.

In all situations, the first duty of police and firefighters is life safety. Second is “stabilization” of the scene and third is the protection of property, Reuter said.

In a serious emergency, such as a storm that leaves the streets impassible and results in an extended power outage, first responders will prioritize—and that case of bottle water for your employees that are trapped in your building overnight isn't going to make it to the top of the list.

Along with having your business prepared, it's crucial to be able to communicate with first responders when they arrive.

For example, if a nursing home or other business needs to be evacuated, first responders will want to know how many people are working that day—keep in mind that electronic time card systems will be inoperable—which individuals have medical or mobility issues and where they are located. A building map is helpful, too.

To make things go even more smoothly, businesses should consider appointing a “liaison officer” whose job it is to communicate with first responders.

Throughout the morning, Wisconsin Emergency Management specialists tried to get business owners to recognize how many different issues could come up in the course of an emergency including:

--How do you let employees know if the roads to your business are blocked or if your business will be closed for the day? How do you let customers know? 

--If you have employees that end up spending the night at the office, what kind of supplies will be needed?  

--If you run a nursing home or assisted living facility, what's the plan for letting patients' families know their loved ones are safe?

--Where will you get information about the extent of a power outage or damage? Calling 911 for information is not appropriate.

--What's the best way for employees to communicate with their families to let them know they are OK?

It's easy for businesses to be overwhelmed with the details, said John Peters, deputy director of the city of Lake Geneva Emergency Management Department.

 “The biggest thing is to develop a plan,” Peters said. “The first thing we told them is we don't want them to feel overwhelmed, to walk out of here thinking, 'Holy cow, I have so much work to do,' that they don't do anything. Anything that we as a municipality can do to make this better, we're extending a hand to say, 'We're here to help.'”

The city wants to foster relationships between the private and public sector so those relationships are solid before a disaster happens.



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