Home Opinion How Prepared Should a Local Community Be for a Disaster?

How Prepared Should a Local Community Be for a Disaster?

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By Randall Hanifen
Contributor, EDM Digest

In recent weeks, FEMA Director Brock Long indicated that there is only so much the federal government can do to respond to disasters and that the local community must be prepared for disaster events. But what elements are needed for preparedness and response capabilities? How feasible is it for a community to prepare for every disaster?

Responsibilities of Various Levels of Government and the Military

In the United States, there are different tiers of government, all with different levels of authority and responsibility. It is unreasonable for each community to build a militia or army to fend off foreign attacks.

However, we have the United States military that provides protection to all states and territories. The military is efficient due to its scope and the limited need to exist in all places, but it also has the ability to shift forces to the necessary locations when needed.

On the flip side of the coin, we are accustomed to our local police handling attacks on our local community and do not fathom the military coming into our neighborhoods to fight local crime. In fact, we have laws against the military being used against citizens.

However, we find it normal for the FBI or the ATF to help our local law enforcement or perform operations in our communities. We recognize that certain capabilities are beyond our local law enforcement and do not have an interest in raising taxes locally to the point that we could equip and train our local police to perform the duties equivalent to the FBI. After all, that is why we pay federal taxes in addition to local taxes.

Establishment of Expectations at Various Levels of Emergency Management

After 9/11, much documentation was created or updated in relation to emergency management and homeland security. Many documents and updates focused on guidance for the significant amounts of grant monies that were given to states and localities.

One of the documents that many emergency managers referenced as we built local capabilities is the Target Capabilities List, which accompanies the National Preparedness Guidelines and the National Planning Frameworks. The Target Capabilities List is very specific about the metrics, equipment, teams and training.

Similarly, the National Response Framework specifies the responsibilities of various governments and entities that will respond to and assist during a natural or manmade event. However, upon examination of the National Response Framework, the responsibilities of local chief officials and local emergency managers concern the abilities to conduct damage assessment, maintain abilities to request and work with other entities (including state and federal governments) and to coordinate and command resources.

When grant funding was at a high level, localities could buy equipment and pay for training courses. However, a few items were missed even then.

The first item was how to fund the development of specialized teams. The grant guidance specified that every community of 10,000 people did not need all capabilities, including regional capabilities. However, no money was provided for administrative overhead to make this goal a reality, other than a patchwork effort of personnel who tried to build and train for these capabilities while conducting their normal jobs.

The second item was the inability to pay personnel and backfill of personnel to train and maintain efficiency on new and renewed practices.

How Feasible Is Paying for Comprehensive Planning and Response at the Local Level?

Most of the grant monies have expired. Maintaining what was purchased during the post-9/11 era is a challenge, much less to retrain or train new personnel to needed levels. Local responders are a diminishing resource over time and will not maintain their youthfulness and intellect forever.

Now couple this with the funding schemes in places such as Ohio. The State of Ohio significantly cut the local government fund that provided localities with the money to offset costs at the local level. As a result, the funding and the possibilities to train and equip responders to have extensive emergency management capabilities is not practical.

While each municipality wants to be as prepared as possible for their citizens, preparedness and response are not free nor do they occur when emergency management agencies try to keep up with an already overtaxed local response system. Fire departments posting to a discussion board do not say that they are overstaffed and underworked. Many local officials have begun to examine efficiency, rather than looking at resiliency and a response business model.

Collaboration between Emergency Managers, the Community and Governments Is Needed

What needs to occur is a collaborative effort. We have some good quantitative and qualitative data that would allow useful decisions to occur regarding capabilities at the various levels.

We could also have the funding and logistics needed to ensure that emergency management capabilities are present in a community, as well as a grading system and severe penalties for a failure to meet standards. The citizens we protect, whether at the local, state, or federal level, all have an expectation of community safety and have paid through multiple tax bills to ensure they are protected.

Start an Emergency & Disaster Management Degree at American Military University.

Randall Hanifen Dr. Hanifen serves as a shift commander at a medium-sized suburban fire department in the northern part of the Cincinnati area. Randall is the CEO/principal consultant of an emergency services consulting firm, providing analysis and solutions related to organizational structuring of fire and EMS organizations. He is the chairperson and operations manager for a county technical rescue team. from a state and national perspective, he serves as a taskforce leader for one of FEMA's urban search and rescue teams, which responds to presidential declared disasters. From an academic standpoint, Randall has a bachelor’s degree in fire administration, a master’s degree in executive fire service leadership, and a doctoral degree in business administration with a specialization in homeland security. He is the associate author of “Disaster Planning and Control” (Penwell, 2009), which provides first responders with guidance through all types of disasters.