Are You Ready? Are You Ready?

Governments deliver some of society's most vital services. In an emergency, citizens look to public agencies to continue providing public assistance checks and public utilities, in addition to emergency services, including medical care or shelter. In today's technological age, governments must ensure vulnerabilities are found and mitigated before disaster strikes.

In April, Government Technology surveyed our readers and found that respondents were mostly confident in their ability to rebound after a catastrophe. Of the 121 readers who responded, about 60 percent were highly confident in their organizations' ability to maintain operations during a disaster. Eighty-one percent were at least moderately confident.

Although many of the responses showed a positive trend in government's preparedness, some experts warn that truly being prepared is more than ticking items off a checklist.   

For example, 95 percent of respondents said they had identified key staff to be contacted in an emergency. But there often is confusion among those key staff members when an emergency happens, said Eric Holdeman, principal with ICF International's Emergency Management and Homeland Security Practice.

"You've identified staff," he said, "but do the staff know they've been identified? That happens much more than you'd ever believe."

Even when staff members are aware they've been identified, they don't always know what's required of them, added Holdeman. "They've never received any information about what that duty might be or received any training on what it would mean." In addition, planners must consider whether those key staff members will be available during an emergency. For instance, they may be the primary caretaker for a family member or are unable to leave their children because they have no alternate care, said Holdeman, who was director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management prior to joining ICF International.

"It's one thing to have a name on a roster; it's another thing to really have a plan in place and be prepared," Holdeman said, adding that names on the roster should belong to people who know they will be expected to perform some duty and be committed to doing so.

Practice Is Essential

David Taylor, CIO of the Florida Department of Health, said the survey results are encouraging and show improvement from a few years ago, though he believes the most important thing about having a disaster recovery plan is practicing with it.

"The risk in all of these plans is that folks create a plan and then put it on the shelf and don't pull it off until the first time they're in a crisis situation," Taylor said. "It is imperative that they practice the plan, the individuals who are involved in the plan know exactly what their role is and what the relationship of their role is to other people's roles in the plan. Unless that's practiced, people really don't understand how to implement their role in a disaster."

Tabletop exercises can be helpful, he said, but real-life simulations are the most valuable for identifying vulnerabilities. "Actually using the stuff in a closest to real-life simulation as possible - that's where the real learning takes place and the real value happens," Taylor said.

In Florida, agencies are required to test their plans at least once per year, he said. The Florida Department of Health tests its plan biannually.

Since Taylor's agency is responsible for coordinating emergency health and medical care in a disaster, the agency must be able to have necessary systems up and running in a very short time. "It's important for us to set up treatment areas regardless of the physical location - buildings, warehouses, campgrounds, etc. - so we practice that," he said. "We bring out the satellite systems, the 800 MHz radio and get all of that in place, and we test that twice a