By RICHARD HILDRETH, mayor of the city of Pacific, Wash.
By their very nature, disasters are a high-risk, low-probability event. Due to the infrequency of disasters and the multitude of issues that policyleaders face every day, it is not surprising that executives often push emergency preparedness to a back burner. However, executives have a special obligation to protect, serve and advance the interest of their constituents, and it is critical that they look seriously at these issues and prepare themselves and their jurisdictions.
This is true if we are talking about a city or we are talking about a business. How a leader copes with and prepares for a disaster demonstrates their managerial competence and their leadership. These are traits critical to winning and maintaining political office or managing a company. Proactive leadership sets the compass point for others to follow and promotes a culture of preparedness in others.
How can executives prepare their jurisdictions? Where can they gain the skills needed to understand the risks they may face and the cascading effects those risks might trigger? I speak from the standpoint of an elected official, but many of these same steps can also be translated to the private sector. The key is to begin the thought process of preparedness.
The process for determining risk in emergency management is very similar to the processes used in determining exposures and vulnerabilities in risk management. That means balancing an overall threat with the likelihood of occurrence and then looking at the entity's ability to mitigate or reduce those risks.
If I prepare for dealing with a large scale event such as an earthquake or hurricane, I will also be prepared to deal with smaller issues such as a power or communications failure. The first step is understanding where there are vulnerabilities.
What would happen if your jurisdiction were to be impacted by a disaster? How quickly could you resume a minimal level of service? How might the ability of others to recover alter your recovery plans? These are issues we need to think about.
An example of this process of critical thinking is a meeting I had last spring with staff. I directed everyone to think about how a breakout of the H1N1 virus might impact their department. The following week, the typical answer was that they would need to deal with short staffing issues and certain people calling in sick.
My community services director came back with a different answer that showed she really understood the importance of the issue. She pointed out that our senior nutrition program was provided by Catholic Community Services. It was their policy that, if an outbreak of H1N1 occurred in an area, they would suspend food programs inside of a two-mile radius around that outbreak. If Auburn School District cancelled classes, as many districts around the country that were affected by the outbreak did, there would be no senior nutrition program in our city, impacting 65 vulnerable adults. Additionally, if social distancing measures were needed to halt an outbreak, we would also have the need to get those nutrition services out to the seniors impacted.
Inside of that week, the community services director had looked at what could happen, what impact it might have on her programs and developed a plan to mitigate the problem. She contracted with the Meals on Wheels program to temporarily expand services during an outbreak and proposed that we would use our volunteers to deliver the additional meals. It is a small example, but it does show that critical thinking that can help reduce the impact of disaster on a community or business.
Next, let's look at policy decisions during times of emergency, the importance of their timing and the legal ramifications of poor choices. This is where that critical thinking pays off. Although we do not want to scare policymakers into not taking action, it is important that we do stress the thought process that must be done to justify decisions.
There are basic skills that must be developed. Clear, methodical and informed decision-making can limit damage as well as exposure and are important parts of an overall planning process. With time, the impacts of a disaster may fade from memory, but how long do we remember the wrong decision that made the disaster worse? Hurricane Katrina demonstrated that point very clearly on many different levels.
For public employees, including elected officials, there are many great options that can help develop the skills needed. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offers both field-delivered training as well as resident training through the Emergency Management Institute (EMI) located in Emmitsburg, Md., and the Center for Domestic Preparedness (CDP) in Anniston, Ala.
The CDP is also a member of a distinct group of educational and preparedness organizations called the National Domestic Preparedness Consortium. Most of these programs are funded by the Department of Homeland Security or are subsidized by grants, so they can be offered at little or no cost to the participant or jurisdiction. Many of these classes combine classroom work with role-playing exercise so the student directly learns how to apply learned skills in a disaster.
The Integrated Emergency Management Course (IEMC) series at EMI is a prime example. This series of courses, usually taught at the EMI campus in Maryland, is usually attended by 50 to 70 students from various disciplines. Typically, students fly in to the Washington, D.C., area on a Sunday and are bused to the National Emergency Training Center (NETC) campus by FEMA. The NETC is on the site of the former Saint Joseph College and now houses EMI and the National Fire Academy. Classes start Monday morning and consist of lectures, classroom discussion and short exercises. Students are then assigned a position similar to their professional position and exercise in the EMI's simulated Emergency Operations Center. Classes provide a combination of training techniques each day and culminate with a daylong exercise on Thursday.
This is great training for very little cost. Many other emergency management and preparedness courses are offered at EMI or field delivered. More information including course schedules and information can be accessed at http://training.fema.gov/.
The Center for Domestic Preparedness (CDP)in Anniston, Ala., operates similarly and fully funds all training for state, local and tribal response personnel--including travel, meals and lodging. With more of a Homeland Security focus, the CDP's classes are usually centered on terrorism, civil unrest and weapons of mass destruction. These classes too combine classroom curriculum with exercise and simulations.
The CDP is also home to the COBRA (Chemical Ordinance Biological and Radiological) training facility, where students can suit up and operate in a live chemical agent environment. COBRA is the only training site in America where civilians can truly experience operating in a contaminated environment.
Also housed within the CDP is the Noble Training Facility, the only full-scale hospital facility in the United States dedicated to training hospital and healthcare professionals in disaster preparedness and response.
Overall, the CDP's training courses promote greater understanding among the following diverse responder disciplines: emergency management, emergency medical services, fire service, governmental administrative, hazardous materials, healthcare, law enforcement, public health, public safety communications and public works. Like EMI, CDP training is offered at little to no cost to the student or jurisdiction. Information on courses at the CDP can be found at http://cdp.dhs.gov.
These facilities can provide a great deal of training at a very low cost. They have provided me with a greater understanding of emergency management and homeland security issues. They have also allowed me to learn what I realistically might face as a policyleader when a disaster happens and how I can appropriately respond.
A recent class I took at the CDP on incident command for weapons of mass destruction, which included some hands-on training, has given me a greater understanding of how difficult it is to work in a contaminated environment. With this new perspective, I now understand how critical this type of planning and response can be.
Yes, this training does take time out of a busy schedule. To attend, I often have to make compromises to fit the classes in. But I look at it this way: When a disaster occurs, my constituents deserve someone who understands the issues and is prepared to act accordingly. I have found that both the training and what has been developed as a result have been a worthwhile investment of my time. I would much rather learn these skills in the classroom than by trial and error in the field.