Perilous Times: 10 Ways to Be Prepared for Disaster

Dan Jensen
Government Affairs Manager
APWA Washington office

Being prepared. It's something the Boy Scouts of America have been touting for over a century, yet the application of this motto still faces obstacles when it comes to our response to natural, man-made and even cosmic disasters. There is plenty blame to go around for not being better prepared for emergencies, but surprisingly, it doesn't all lie at the steps of Capitol Hill.

For generations we have seen the terrible consequences of not being prepared when disaster strikes. Nothing brought this principle into focus more than the devastating hurricane season of 2005, specifically through the damage sustained in the Gulf States. There we saw examples of what can happen when there is a breakdown between local, state and federal preparedness plans. However, seeing what went wrong has also given us insight into how we can better prepare for the next catastrophe.

Given that the focus of this month's APWA Reporter is based on a "Top Ten" theme, this article will endeavor to list "Ten ways in which public works can be better prepared for the next catastrophic event."

1. Know what to expect
Hazard identification is a key component for any preparedness plan. Because it would be overwhelmingly impossible to plan for every conceivable type of emergency, it makes sense to begin with known risks for your city, state or region. Planners in California are considered experts in earthquake preparation, but the risks faced in that state are not limited to the shaking of the earth. Other risk factors include wildfires, tsunamis, droughts and terrorism.

By communicating with your peers in other areas who have gone through similar events, you can increase your own knowledge of what to expect during certain disasters. The lessons learned through their experiences can help you know what pitfalls can be avoided, and where to focus your recovery efforts.

A list of common threats and associated information can be found at www.disasterhelp.gov. Also, familiarizing yourself with mitigation programs on the federal level can help you minimize impacts caused by various natural disasters. More information on this effort can be found on FEMA's website: http://www.fema.gov/fima/.

2. Exercise personal preparedness
Being prepared at home with provisions for you and your family will alleviate the strain on public services in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. This not only allows first responders and other key personnel to more efficiently apply their resources to getting the community back on its feet, it also lessens the burden placed on agencies tasked with helping those people less fortunate get supplies first.

People who are prepared at home with adequate supplies of food and water tend to be better prepared in their jobs. Having public works officials that know their family is prepared for a disaster through proper planning at home will give those officials the peace of mind needed to perform their critical job requirements during emergencies.

Useful websites for understanding personal preparedness and containing tips to starting your own plans at home can be found at www.ready.gov and www.redcross.org. In addition to these government resources, many religious organizations also emphasize personal preparedness for disasters and offer tips on food storage. Doing a web search for "personal food storage" will yield many helpful resources.

3. Stay connected with your community
Sharing information with the citizens in your community can play a vital role in maintaining order during an emergency. When citizens are informed through outreach tools such as public service announcements, town hall meetings, informative web pages and inclusion into neighborhood exercises aimed at improving the local response during a disaster, they are less likely to become obstacles to recovery and more likely to play a greater role in community rebuilding efforts.

In addition to outreach, a robust warning system that informs the public of imminent or other impending emergencies should be the hallmark of any planning system. New tools are being developed that incorporate the use of mobile phones and other wireless devices into evacuation plans, with notices being directly sent to the population. Where the resources are not available for such futuristic warning systems, the tried and true method of using neighborhood "air raid" sirens is also highly effective.

Involving your community is easier than you think. Visit www.citizencorps.gov for information on building a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) for your area. Participation in CERT is an excellent way to share the role of public works with the public.

4. Get educated
There are many programs sponsored through local, state and federal governments that are geared towards disaster awareness and training. One such tool is the National Incident Management System (NIMS).

NIMS was developed so responders from different jurisdictions and disciplines can work together better to respond to natural disasters and emergencies, including acts of terrorism. NIMS benefits include a unified approach to incident management; standard command and management structures; and emphasis on preparedness, mutual aid and resource management.

FEMA offers training courses with certification programs that will greatly enhance your knowledge in emergency management. More information can be found by visiting www.fema.gov/nims.

5. Practice with other first responders
In addition to NIMS, there are other ways in which public works officials can better prepare themselves for work with other disciplines—training with them.

APWA has always recognized that interdisciplinary training is one of the most important components of any emergency plan. The goal of such training is to ensure that by working with other agencies, such as police and fire, maximum efficiency to disaster response is achieved. Precious time is often wasted in the immediate aftermath of disasters because various local agencies are unfamiliar with each others' response plans. Notwithstanding greater communications problems such as interoperability, it is still possible to become familiar with urban search and rescue plans for catastrophic events, so that public works can properly ascertain its role when the time comes.

Through better knowledge of the roles played by each discipline prior to an emergency, lives will be saved and communities will continue to be safe places to live.

6. Identify potential legal challenges in advance
We've all seen the liability issues that can arise from different jurisdictions trying to work together after a disaster. Often, different groups of responders face repayment and other logistical issues once their work is completed. They may find that their host city is so overburdened with cleanup efforts that financial obligations resulting from the help given may not be given priority.

Luckily, there is a system which addresses this. The Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC), ratified by all 50 states, is a congressionally ratified organization that provides form and structure to interstate mutual aid. Through EMAC, a disaster-impacted state can request and receive assistance from other member states quickly and efficiently, resolving two key issues upfront: liability and reimbursement.

This system is an excellent resource, and attention should be given regarding its benefits prior to any disaster. More information can be found at www.emacweb.org.

7. Backups and "Plan B"
Even the best laid plans cannot be guaranteed to work for every situation. For the same reason hospitals have backup generators to ensure critical patients are kept alive if power fails during medical procedures, your community should also have a backup plan in place that may be just as important to saving lives.

One such system, currently under revision, is the National Response Plan (NRP) developed by the Department of Homeland Security following September 11, 2001. The National Response Plan establishes a comprehensive all-hazards approach to enhance the ability of the United States to manage domestic incidents. The plan incorporates best practices and procedures from incident management disciplines—homeland security, emergency management, law enforcement, firefighting, public works, public health, responder and recovery worker health and safety, emergency medical services, and the private sector—and integrates them into a unified structure. It forms the basis of how the federal government coordinates with state, local, and tribal governments and the private sector during incidents.

Familiarize yourself and your departments with the NRP. Understand the roles expected by public works and be ready if and when disaster strikes. More information can be found at www.dhs.gov/nrp.

8. Challenge your routines
If you already have prepared yourself for disaster, don't be lulled into a false sense of security. Challenge your planning models by devising scenarios which test your known weaknesses. One of the biggest problems faced in the Gulf during Hurricane Katrina was the sense of routine adopted by many towns and communities. Because they had weathered storms in the past, many were unprepared for the new levels of destruction brought by Katrina. Old evacuation and contingency plans were meaningless in these areas, because they had not prepared for something worse than they had already seen.

By signing up with the federal Lessons-Learned Information Sharing (www.llis.dhs.gov) database, you can communicate with other professionals in the industry to ask questions and get new ideas on things you may not have previously considered.

9. Establish communication with state and federal emergency management agencies in advance
In a crisis, you'll want to have the confidence that the agencies responsible for recovery know what you're doing to restore basic services, and what they can do to help. By working with state and federal emergency management agencies before disaster strikes, you can more effectively communicate how they can best share their resources without completely taking charge of a situation that should fall under local control.

APWA members in the Gulf States had problems with FEMA coming into areas intent on managing local resources instead of providing the resources needed by communities and their leaders for recovery. This created communication breakdowns and distrust between federal responders and the towns they were trying to help. By establishing working relationships with federal agencies prior to disaster, some of these conflicts could have been avoided allowing a more efficient expenditure of resources.

To find a list of federal agencies tasked with preparedness initiatives, please visit: www.fema.gov/preparedness.

10. Know your legislators
Perhaps one of the most understated resources during and after a disaster are your own elected officials. These people are usually at the forefront of any media and financial attention your community will receive as a result of the disaster. If lawmakers are familiar with the crucial role played by public works, they will be more likely to direct needed resources and attention to your needs.

Legislators were publicly grateful of firefighters following September 11, 2001 not only for the hard work and sacrifices that were made by this group of first responders, but because of the good relationships enjoyed between firefighters and their elected officials. The roles and risks of firefighters are easily understood. Lawmakers cannot be appreciative and financially supportive of public works unless they properly understand the role of public works officials and personally meet some of the faces associated with public works.

You can prepare your community and your departments for the next disaster by introducing yourself to your elected officials in their home (district) offices, or by supporting them during campaigns before disaster ever sets foot on your doorsteps. Even if the threat never materializes, the relationships and understanding built at this level can have benefits that reach far beyond increased publicity. You may be able to influence important policy that will benefit your department, your community and your country for generations to come.

You can find a list of your elected representatives by visiting sites such as: www.congress.org; www.house.gov; www.senate.gov.

Preparation: your best resource
APWA continues to work on your behalf by identifying ways in which public works can make contributions towards many of the programs listed above. Our members have participated in the creation of NRP, NIMS, NIPP and many other federal, state and local disaster plans.

Also, by working with elected officials here in Washington, we are able to ensure our voice is heard and input given into the process by which our nation prepares for and responds to disasters in the future.

Remember, being adequately prepared is the best resource you have when planning for disaster. Be creative in your planning efforts, learn from those who may have more experience, and continue to serve your community by doing everything possible to ensure that you will be able to protect your community when the next disaster strikes.

Dan Jensen can be reached at (202) 218-6734 or djensen@apwa.net.

Public works director briefs congressional staffers about e-waste

As technology continues to evolve and improve, Americans are discarding approximately two million tons of used electronics each year, including computers and televisions. Additionally, an estimated 128 million cell phones are retired from use annually. With toxic chemicals such as lead and mercury in the devices, discarded electronics pose a threat to human health and the environment. Many of the items can be recycled and reused, but in the absence of federal action, states are developing programs to deal with the growing waste stream, while balancing concerns about convenience and cost to the customer and burden on local governments.

On March 7, Roger Flint, chair of APWA's Solid Waste Management Committee and Director of Public Works and Utilities for the City of Spokane, Wash., briefed House and Senate staff members in Washington, D.C., about implications and cost of e-waste and electronic recycling.

Roger Flint speaks at the Congressional Briefing.

"The majority of e-waste ends up in a landfill or incinerated at a waste-to-energy facility," said Flint. "We have to start asking questions: how can this be done environmentally, who assumes liability, what are the costs and who pays them? We also need to ensure consistency between federal and state regulations."

Washington has pending legislation for a shared-responsibility model of electronic recycling between manufacturers, retailers, consumers and local jurisdictions which would ease the burden from disposal facilities. The state is also developing a manufacturer-implemented and financed statewide system for recycling computers, monitors and televisions. The program would be cost-free to households, small businesses and government, school districts and nonprofit organizations.

APWA Congressional Briefings are one part of an awareness campaign to provide congressional staff with information about the role and needs of public works and infrastructure in local communities. APWA member experts brief staff members about issues ranging from transportation funding to emergency preparedness and clean water.

Contributed by Becky Wickstrom, APWA Manager of Media Affairs, who can be reached at (202) 218-6736 or bwickstrom@apwa.net.