In 1995, I was a newly elected county judge ready to tackle all the problems and make the county a better place to live. I was in office about three weeks when a gentleman from the Texas Department of Emergency Management stopped by. He introduced himself and said he wanted to visit with me about the county’s emergency management plan. So I called my secretary and asked her to go to the clerk’s office to get us a copy of the plan. Almost before I could finish my directions, the gentleman stopped me and said, “Judge, please do not bother. You do not have an Emergency Management Plan (EMP). All you will find is a Civil Defense Plan from 1962.”
You can imagine the feelings I had that day. I was new on the job, not really up to speed on what an EMP was, and then I learned one did not even exist for my county. That began my experience with emergency management and the development of an EMP that the county would approve.
Back in the mid-1990s there was a movement call “De-Evolution” that was very popular: “Keep government small, and shrink it all you can.” The push was to stop any new projects or programs that would cost or expand local government. It was indeed an interesting time. When I brought up the subject of needing to develop an EMP, it was not received with open arms. What did help in a very sad way was the bombing of the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City. This brought to light the importance of being prepared. Of course, there were still those who said it wouldn’t happen to them. I could go on about the fun time I had just getting the basic plan passed and doing it with very limited resources, but that is for another time. Working with nine volunteer fire departments, emergency medical services (EMS), police departments from three cities, and the sheriff’s department at times made it challenging. Acting as the emergency manager (EM) for the county along with my other responsibilities educated me on the importance of having an EMP.
The point is, an EMP was needed, and we spent the time to get it in place. That happened none too soon because the county was hit with a major flood in the fall of 1998. Without the basic plan, the county could have suffered more.
Development of an EMP takes time, and it requires the buy-in of law enforcement, fire departments, EMS, healthcare, public works, and other departments to put it together and make it work under disaster conditions. Most counties today have an EM and support the position with no problems. However, some counties do not support the EM so well. Again, I would like to emphasize that the EM is a needed position in county government. The success of that position is tied to many things. Proper funding and training is imperative. Buy-in from the other county offices along with your cities and communities within the county also adds to the success of the EM position and the EMP.
Developing plans, working together, training together, and following up on past disasters to see what went right or wrong are all components to ensure success during response to a disaster as well as recovery. However, with all of the diverse issues counties have to contend with, emergency management sometimes does not take a high priority. Anyone who has ever been involved in county government knows that there are limited resources and funding. That is why counties seek other funding sources to cover the required mandates and issues that need attention.
When counties develop their budgets each year, they are always looking for areas where they can make cuts or reduce spending. One area that suffers is training. However, with the changing environment of emergency management and the response and recovery requirements that come down from state and federal governments, training becomes essential. Protection of citizens as well as county assets can end up costing counties more money in the long run if they are not prepared and do not understand the different ways in which they can mitigate disasters. Training can provide needed information to protect people, first responders and physical assets.
The good news is that there are ways counties can train without touching their coffers.
The National Domestic Preparedness Consortium (NDPC) is an entity funded by the federal government that delivers no-cost training for counties and their first responders. However, keep in mind that “no-cost” training still costs as it is funded with our tax dollars. Since we have all paid for it, we should strongly consider using this path for training our responders.
The Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service (TEEX) is one of the nine NDPC members that provide this training. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) sponsor the training courses. To be eligible for the training, you must be a local or state government entity. The good news is the training can come to your location so county personnel do not have to travel and have the associated expenses.
Training for elected officials, emergency managers, fire, law enforcement, EMS, hospitals and healthcare, public works, county road and bridge personnel, and those involved with other critical infrastructure areas, such as water and wastewater, can receive courses specific to their discipline. Your county may need training that pertains to the Incident Command System (ICS), the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) or the National Incident Management System (NIMS). Courses are offered that address these areas. If you are interested in obtaining information about this training, you can contact TEEX or your state training officer.
Today, there are still counties and communities throughout the United States that fall short on planning, mitigation, response and recovery issues. However, one only needs to look at incidents like Oklahoma City, Hurricane Ike, and the recent wildfire season to realize that disaster can easily strike your county. Remember, you can never over prepare for a disaster.