It goes without saying that the American populace entrusts public agencies to prepare for and manage any disaster that arises—natural or man-made. What is not widely known is how local and state governments actually address emergency preparedness. What types of events do they prepare for? How do they plan for disasters? What approaches do they take? Not surprising, the answers to these questions and others are as diverse as the public agencies themselves that serve communities across the United States.
In California for instance, Caltrans’ Office of Emergency Management, headed by Professional Engineer Herby Lissade, prepares for 16 of the 17 recognized Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster types—all but hurricanes. Recent emergency responses this year have included the Japan tsunami in March and the September power outage in southern California. These are in addition to annual wild fires, snow and ice storms, mudslides, sand and wind storms, and flooding.
Kentucky’s Lexington-Fayette County Division of Emergency Management prepares mostly for weather events and large mass casualties. “I have worked floods, snow storms, ice storms, tornadoes, a plane crash, an anthrax scare, hazardous materials spills, H1N1 influenza outbreaks, and handled National Disaster Medical System evacuees,” says Pat Dugger, director of emergency management.
Anthony Broom, emergency coordination officer for the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), has addressed wild fires, tropical storms, H1N1 influenza, cold weather events, floods, Operation Haiti Relief, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and freeze events.
And at the national defense level, Michael Hackler, emergency manager for the U.S. Air Force Air Mobility Command at Scott Air Force Base near St. Louis, provides oversight, guidance, and support to all AMC installations. “Our main focus is on the physical effects of natural disasters, major accidents, and the terrorist use of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear material,” he explains. During 2011, his team has responded to several hurricanes, tornadoes, and radiation hazards from Japan’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant.
FDOT’s emergency response functions during activation fall under the more traditional responsibilities: providing and coordinating available resources of member agencies to support basic emergency transportation needs—air, ground, rail, and water—and public works and engineering transportation needs during any declared emergency or disaster. Broom emphasizes that in preparing for emergencies, even those that may never occur, “reviewing plans and testing are key factors to promote success,” and he notes the importance of having pre-established baselines for success and treating every emergency situation as a high priority.
For Dugger, emergency preparedness in Lexington-Fayette County takes on a more personal, one-on-one approach. “We are responsible for providing preparedness information and training to the community and first responders,” she points out. “We publish brochures, newspaper and magazine articles; maintain a Web site, Twitter, and Facebook accounts; and appear regularly on radio and television programs to promote emergency awareness and preparedness. Our theme for this year is: Be Aware, Get a Kit, Make a Plan.”
In preparing for the unexpected, Lissade touts Caltrans’ participation in the California Emergency Management Agency’s annual Golden Guardian Exercise Series—the largest statewide training exercise program of its kind in the country—aimed at coordinating prevention, preparation, response, and recovery mechanisms of city, county, and state governmental entities as well as private and volunteer organizations.
On a more local scale, Andrew Bencomo, deputy chief of operations for the Las Cruces Fire Department, says his team maintains emergency preparedness by conducting “table-top exercises” on a regular basis. “Prioritizing possible events comes by taking input from various personnel and agencies and then evaluating what would be the most likely event to occur that we have the least experience with, and then determining what the impact might be to our community should they occur,” he explains.
The role of engineering in emergency management and response is still at the forefront of many agencies. “Caltrans engineers recently formed Haiti Engineering, a nonprofit organization, to help respond to the Haiti earthquake,” Lissade notes. “Many of the engineers and professionals at Caltrans and other state agencies have learned valuable lessons through participating with this nonprofit [and others]. This helps us stay in good practice for events that may occur in California.”
Bencomo adds, “Having a perspective outside of traditional emergency responders can open up new ideas and out-of-the-box thinking.” He cites the importance of engineering in designing safety and seismic restraint systems in public buildings and other types of structures such as bridges and roadways, in addition to the design of safety equipment and personal protective gear that emergency responders use daily.
The construction of buildings to make them more disaster-resistant in a cost-effective manner remains one of the most challenging objectives for today’s engineers, says Dugger. And from a post-disaster perspective, Hackler emphasizes engineering’s vital role in gathering and analyzing basic information before planning and implementing any recovery operation.
Although technological advancements in emergency communication systems and the use of social media such as Twitter and Facebook have greatly assisted in emergency preparedness, Hackler contends that personal responsibility cannot be overrated. “Everyone knows being prepared is important,” he says, “but most believe the work should be done for them. Preparing yourself and your family isn’t difficult or time consuming.”