New York Transitions Focus to Preparing for Worst-Case Scenarios

Numerous new initiatives are helping enhance the state’s preparedness posture.

by Jerome Hauer and Terry Hastings / September 11, 2014
New York Air National Guard members distribute disaster and emergency response starter kits and emergency information after a session of the state’s Citizen Preparedness Corps Training Program on May 10. U.S. National Guard photo by Sgt. 1st Class Raymond Drumsta

The ongoing threat of terrorism and increased frequency, scope and scale of natural hazards has led New York to change how it prepares for and responds to disasters by planning for the new normal of extreme weather and the persistent threat of terrorism. In doing so, New York has developed numerous new initiatives to enhance the state’s preparedness posture.

At the direction of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, New York has shifted from a “wait-and-see” posture to a more proactive “lean-forward” approach to emergency management in an effort to assist local partners. The goal is not to take over but rather better position the state to understand and support the needs of local government. We are also altering our approach to planning in New York by evolving from traditional all-hazards planning to planning and preparing for worst-case scenarios. By preparing for the worst-case scenarios, New York will be better able to handle any event. This evolution, coupled with our more proactive approach to emergency management, will help to ensure state resources are ready and available to assist local communities during a crisis.

A key component to the lean-forward approach is a more robust regional construct. The Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services (DHSES) has increased its regional footprint by expanding from five to 10 planning/response regions, each staffed with a regional director, regional coordinator and a lieutenant from the New York State Police. These individuals work collaboratively with staff from the DHSES Office of Fire Prevention and Control and other state agencies and serve as the primary interface with our local partners. During response situations, the DHSES regional staff now deploys quicker to help our cities and counties size up the situation and identify potential resource needs. This ability to more immediately obtain situational awareness allows the state to better anticipate and support resource requests.

To support information flow, New York has developed a state-funded interoperable communications grant program that has aided the growth of regional communications partnerships throughout the state. The partnerships, which are inclusive of local and state public safety agencies, are responsible for creating interoperable emergency communications systems for first responders. To date, 13 regional partnerships or consortiums have been formed within all 57 counties and New York City.

To be eligible for this program, counties must be members of a communication consortium and establish and maintain a single point of contact (interoperability coordinator) to oversee the county’s interoperability efforts. They must assure accessibility to county communication systems to state and other jurisdictions for interoperability purposes. In addition, for project expenses to be eligible for state reimbursement, counties must deploy technology with non-proprietary standards and ensure that national interoperability channels are programmed in land mobile radio devices funded through the grant program. $215 million has been awarded to all 57 counties and New York City though the program.

In addition to more regional staff as noted above, DHSES has enhanced its regional stockpile program. Nine regional stockpile sites have been established across the state, each with a variety of resources (generators, large-scale pumps, cots, blankets, water, etc.) and specialty response items such as mass casualty equipment and other resources often requested during a disaster. As a direct result of the lessons learned from Superstorm Sandy, the state has also developed a strategic fuel reserve and a program to provide gas stations along evacuation routes with backup generators.

Another lesson learned from Superstorm Sandy was the fact that many elected officials lacked emergency management training. To remedy this situation, Gov. Cuomo tasked DHSES with developing a training program specifically for county chief executives and other local leaders so that they have an understanding of the state’s emergency management framework and their authority and responsibilities during a disaster. This training also serves to educate elected officials on the correct process to obtain resources and support from the state. It has been a useful mechanism to help manage the expectations of local government, given that most disasters do not garner federal funding, which had been a common misperception previously.

This program also includes a three-and-half-day training academy for county emergency managers to ensure they all have the same baseline level of knowledge and an awareness of emerging issues. This is an important step in the increasing professionalization of the emergency management discipline, considering that emergency managers (unlike firefighters and police officers) do not have formal training academies. To ensure compliance with the program, the governor requires county chief executives and emergency managers to complete the training for their counties to remain eligible for grant funds administered by DHSES. To help ensure buy-in, DHSES partnered with local emergency managers to develop the program and ensure the training remains relevant and valuable.

New York also has the benefit of having the State Preparedness Training Center (SPTC), a former airport with more than 700 acres remodeled into a state-of-the-art training facility complete with a fully enclosed Cityscape, rubble pile for search and rescue operations, and other unique training venues for high-end scenario-based training. That includes active shooter training and other courses that allow first responders from all disciplines to train together simultaneously. Last year alone, the SPTC helped to train more than 13,000 individuals (though both residential and mobile courses), including more than 4,500 teachers and school officials in how to respond to active shooter events. Our goal this year is to train at least 18,000 individuals.

DHSES was also challenged by Gov. Cuomo to come up with a more systematic way to understand local preparedness and capability gaps. FEMA, think tanks and other groups have long tried to develop such a system to assess preparedness, but efforts to date have yet to produce much in the way of tangible results (at least for New York). So DHSES again partnered with the local first responder community to develop a more intuitive and useful approach. The result is the County Emergency Preparedness Assessment (CEPA) program, which includes a tool and methodology to help state and local stakeholders assess risk, capabilities and the potential need for support and resources during emergencies or disasters. CEPA provides a standardized and repeatable process to understand capabilities at the county level and identify statewide trends. The key component of CEPA is an in-person meeting between state and local subject-matter experts to discuss and analyze local hazard and capability information and potential resource gaps.

After completing the assessment, counties can use the results to educate their elected officials, to justify budget requests, to tailor future programs and resource allocations, and to inform future planning, training and exercise activities. Counties can also use the CEPA results to provide a framework for more detailed discussions with DHSES regarding exactly what resources and support the state can offer to best support local government during emergencies. After pilot testing the tool and methodology with several jurisdictions, DHSES validated the process and is now conducting CEPA sessions across the state. Again, because of the buy-in and partnership with first responders to develop the system, CEPA has been well received by our local partners, unlike many of the previous assessment programs.

A more educated and prepared citizenry is another key aspect of New York’s approach, and we have learned that brochures and websites are simply not enough. Practical training must be provided to the public in the communities where they reside, as a member of public will often be the first to the scene of an emergency. With this in mind, Gov. Cuomo launched the Citizen Preparedness Corps training initiative to help ensure residents have the training and resources to prepare for any type of disaster, respond accordingly and recover as quickly as possible to pre-disaster conditions. A key component of this training is the distribution of New York State Citizen Preparedness Corps Response Kits that contain key items to assist individuals in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. The training is provided by the New York National Guard, working with experts from DHSES, and it is based on our “circle of life” concept whereby we empower the public to help themselves, their families and their neighbors during times of crisis. The goal for this year is to train 100,000 residents.

The initiatives outlined above are a few of the many efforts under way in New York to better prepare the state and its residents for the new normal of extreme weather and the other persistent threats we face. Mother Nature has become much more aggressive, so we too must adopt a similar posture to ensure we are ready to respond effectively when the next disaster strikes. And if recent history is any guide, the next disaster may be bigger and more destructive than the last. Therefore it is critical that we assume a more proactive approach to emergency management so that we can meet government’s most important mission, which is to ensure the safety and security of the public and our communities.

Jerome Hauer is the commissioner of the New York State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services (DHSES), former director of the New York City Office of Emergency Management and former executive director of emergency management for the state of Indiana. Terry Hastings is a senior policy adviser for DHSES and former deputy director of the DHSES Office of Emergency Management.

This story was originally published by Emergency Management

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