How Elected Officials Can Prepare for, Respond to Emergencies

Not only do elected and appointed officials need to be ready to respond to disasters, they should also take pre-emptive measures to mitigate or lessen the effects of disasters on their communities.

by David L. Maack / March 5, 2014
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett and Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley are briefed at the Pennsylvania National Guard's Joint Emergency Operations Center on the guard's response to Sandy in October 2012. (Pennsylvania National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Ted Nichols)

There is a phrase among emergency managers, “It is not a matter of if but when disaster happens. Are you prepared?”

No one wakes up and says today there is going to be a disaster. In fact, disasters are unexpected; they overwhelm first responders; and lives, health and the environment are often endangered. At a very minimum, emergencies and disasters are disruptive and often occur at the most inopportune times. Therefore, we need to foster an attitude of both personal and community preparedness.

Each county in Wisconsin is required to have an emergency management program. The structure of these programs may vary by county, but all counties have the same responsibilities. These responsibilities are outlined in 323.14 Wis. Stats., which requires that each county board “shall develop and adopt an emergency management plan and program that is compatible with the state plan of emergency management.”

A good emergency management program is built on relationships that have been developed over time. While most emergency management programs are small and have limited budgets, a good emergency manager brings a wealth of experience to the table, as well as a broad network of contacts. They also have the ability to bring together a broad and diverse group of people to focus on the emergency.

Like this story? If so, subscribe to Emergency Management’s weekly newsletter.

Emergency management is on the frontlines of developing disaster plans; coordinating training, drills and exercises; and educating the public about disasters. Most emergency management offices in Wisconsin are small, and because disasters are not a daily or even a monthly occurrence, they often go unnoticed -- that is, until something happens. Simply designating an emergency manager does not absolve an elected official from responsibility during a disaster.

All disasters are local. State and federal agencies support local operations when local resources are exhausted. The public expects elected officials to be at the forefront of response and recovery efforts. They look to elected officials for direction and reassurance.

Elected officials set the tone and direction in the community for prevention, mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery activities. They do so by providing policy, mission, direction and authority. Actions taken during an incident can either help or hinder the desired outcome. Therefore, it is important that elected officials understand what their role is prior to a disaster.

Not only do elected and appointed officials need to be ready to respond to disasters, they should also take pre-emptive measures to mitigate or lessen the effects of disasters on their communities. While you may not be able to prevent floods or tornadoes from hitting your community, you can lessen the damages of disasters by utilizing tools such as flood plain management and land use planning policies, and enforcing standards that keep people from putting their lives and economic welfare in danger due to unperceived disasters.

Sadly, many communities do not address mitigation until they are in the recovery phase of a disaster. However, it has been proven that mitigation saves money. It’s been documented how every $1 spent on mitigation saves society an average of $4. That is a pretty good return on investment.

When disaster strikes, response activities are critical and everyone should know their role. The county Emergency Operations Plan and supporting annexes or Emergency Support Functions outline those responsibilities.

In larger disasters, an emergency operations center (EOC) is often established. An EOC is a multiagency coordination system in which elected and senior officials from various agencies gather to coordinate the overall response to an event. While the field commander manages the incident at the scene and makes tactical decisions, the role of the EOC is to look at the big picture, anticipate needs, coordinate resources and make policy decisions. This frees up the field incident commander to focus on tactical operations.

One of the tools that county executives and county board chairs have is the ability to declare a county state of emergency. Depending on your local ordinances, doing so not only provides additional powers during the declaration, but also positions the county to request additional state and federal assistance.

It is also important that counties submit damage assessment reports to Wisconsin Emergency Management within 12, 24 and 72 hours. While initial damage assessment estimates may be rough, it is imperative that a plan is in place to accurately document and assess both public and private sector damage. This will help the state determine if there is sufficient damage to request FEMA to conduct a preliminary damage assessment or if the local municipality could be eligible for reimbursement through the Wisconsin Disaster Fund.

Depending on the incident, recovery may be long term. Clean-up and debris removal could take weeks, if not months. If a community is devastated, the rebuilding process could take years.

In the midst of disasters, typical functions like garbage pick-up, street repairs, etc., are often delayed because those workers are reassigned to disaster response. Depending on the size and type of the disaster, departments such as human services, register of deeds, planning and development, purchasing and finance could also be involved, in addition to law enforcement, fire, public works, medical examiner/coroner and emergency management.

While the public will be extremely patient during the initial few days of an emergency, if they are not directly affected, they expect that government will also provide the same general services that it did prior to the disaster. This poses challenges because staff is usually stretched thin responding to and then recovering from the disaster.

Learning to balance long-term recovery with the day-to-day expectations of a community is essential.

County Official Responsibilities

Each disaster will be unique, but common threads will run through each. Knowing the types of hazards that could impact your community will, however, aid you in preparing for those emergencies or disasters.

Steps elected and senior officials should take prior to a disaster include:

  1. Familiarize yourself with Wis. Stats. Chapter 323. This not only outlines your responsibilities, but it also outlines additional powers that you will have during a disaster.
  2. Review emergency ordinances to ensure they are adequate. Define emergency powers and add a provision for declaring a local/county state of emergency.
  3. Integrate emergency management into all departments that may be called upon to respond to provide support during a disaster.
  4. Ensure that your community’s comprehensive emergency management/operations plan is current and compliant with the National Incident Management System.
  5. Know what your responsibilities are and participate in disaster drills/exercises.
  6. Develop and support the establishment of an EOC.
  7. Develop or maintain a continuity of operations/continuity of government plan (COOP/COG). In the private sector, this would be similar to a business continuity plan.
  8. As a part of your COOP/COG plan, identify alternate facilities in which to operate out of in the event that your primary facilities are damaged or in an evacuation zone. These alternate facilities may be in another jurisdiction if necessary.
  9. Develop a community-based mitigation process to implement a hazard mitigation plan. This is critical for receiving hazard mitigation funds after a disaster occurs.
  10. Develop mutual aid agreements with other agencies and jurisdictions.
  11. Foster the creation of a long-term recovery committee to plan and guide local recovery issues.

Steps elected and senior officials should take during a disaster include:

  1. Maintain a presence in the EOC.
  2. Consider the need for issuing an emergency declaration or proclamation. This can help position your community to receive additional state and federal assistance.
  3. Understand the incident objectives, provide visible leadership and set policy.
  4. Exercise sound reasonable judgment, and make decisions with appreciation of legal considerations. Follow your unique standard of care.
  5. Prioritize resources.
  6. Communicate to the public the nature of event, status of community response, and what individuals should do.
  7. Utilize mutual aid with neighboring jurisdictions.
  8. Promote the timely completion of preliminary damage assessments by individuals and businesses.
  9. Document, document, document!

Steps elected and senior officials should take after a disaster include:

  1. Tour damaged areas and meet with impacted residents.
  2. Develop a recovery plan and work with state and federal agencies to secure recovery funds.
  3. During the recovery process, consider mitigation projects that could lessen or prevent future damage.
  4. Work with the long-term recovery committee to address long-term needs for survivors.
  5. Participate in after action reviews/critiques.

Emergency management is like an insurance policy. You hope that you will never have to use it but when you do, you want the assurance that it will be there. If elected and senior officials do not put the time in on the front end, they will spend 10 times more on the back end trying to understand and deal with the ramifications of not being prepared.

David L. Maack, CEM, CPM, WCEM is the Racine County emergency management coordinator.