November 20, 2007 By David Raths
The report levels some criticism at the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA) for not elevating the State Emergency Operations Center's activation level to Level 3 soon enough. Its policy of waiting to receive calls for assistance before raising the level is a problem, Fisher explained, because only Level 3 requires agency liaisons with information about their employees' needs to come in to the operations center.
The storm response pointed out weaknesses in the state's work to implement the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's National Incident Management System (NIMS). "They had done some training in NIMS, but it really wasn't being adopted," Fisher stressed. "They weren't living it."
Fisher said some executives interviewed didn't know the four levels of emergency activation and weren't sure if they'd be contacted in an emergency. Others weren't clear on the division of responsibilities between PEMA and their agencies during an emergency.
Witt recommended that throughout the state, there must be much more planning in terms of emergency management processes. "The senior managers of PennDOT don't know their peers at the state police or PEMA," Fisher said. "They have to know each other and work on planning together. You don't want to meet your fire chief when your building is burning down."
Fixing the Problems
With the negative publicity immediately following the storm, state officials could have become discouraged and defensive. But Martz said Rendell and other state officials are determined to fix the systemic problems highlighted by the Witt report, released in late March. "The governor accepted the report's findings," Martz said, "and with that acceptance comes the commitment to follow through on its recommendations."
Rendell followed the Witt team's suggestions for improvements, and gave agency heads deadlines to implement changes or report timelines for project completion.
Among the changes under way:
It may take another emergency or this winter's storm season before the public can gauge whether the state's emergency management communications framework has improved. But Martz plans to file several follow-up progress reports to the governor and make those reports available to the Legislature. The state may hold hearings to ensure that these changes have been made.
Martz admits that reports following previous emergencies had highlighted many of the same issues that hampered the state's response to the Valentine's Day storm.
When a problem was identified in those reports, it was handled by telling the relevant department to fix the problem, he said.
"Instead, we should have put a team together to see what resources they needed to make it happen and ensure it was fixed," Martz said. "That type of follow-through was the missing piece, and that's what we're doing now."
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