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Local Government Resources Are National Assets in a Disaster

It is local governments that are responsible for the planning for, preparation for, response to, recovery from, and mitigation of any natural, man-made emergency or disaster that impacts a local community. Managing the emergency is the duty and responsibility of the local government’s elected officials, appointed managers, and employees.

A common misconception is that federal and state officials are responsible for managing the response and recovery activities. Emergency management is a perfect example of federalism at work. The federal, state, and local governments each have emergency plans. Some emergencies require only local effort. Others of larger scope require state assistance. Still others are of such magnitude that they require federal assistance.

The emergency management plans of federal, state, and local governments clearly define the roles each plays during an emergency. The primary role of federal and state agencies in a disaster is to coordinate and support local governments in all phases of emergency management. When a disaster strikes, local government is charged with managing all aspects of the event, realizing that state and federal resources may be called upon to assist in the response and recovery from the emergency.

Communities experience emergencies every day. Most emergencies do not rise to the level of needing federal, state, or even other local government assistance; however, when a larger event occurs, there is a system in place to provide additional resources.

There are about 90,000 local governments in the United States today. This number includes counties, cities, towns, villages, townships, school districts, and special districts. There are several million local government employees working for those units of local government. Unless a disaster strikes their specific area, those employees, their expertise, and their resources are virtually left untapped. Yet formal and informal agreements and a different approach could tap into these resources.

Local governments are responsible for preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation. This is a continuous cycle. It is extremely important that local governments have an emergency management plan that is current and up to date. A well-developed and thought-out emergency management plan can benefit a local government in managing all types of non-emergency and disaster activities that arise from day to day. For example, if a community is hosting a special event, many elements in the local government’s emergency management plan apply to managing it.

Local governments should constantly review, refine, train for, and exercise their plans. Too often, local government plans are not tested under simulated conditions; then, when emergencies happen, officials find that their plans are of no use. Good emergency management plans are regularly exercised with realistic simulations and events. After the exercises or simulations, the plans are updated. It is extremely important that local government employees receive regular training. Many tabletop exercises do not test all aspects of the emergency plan. The training exercises provide an opportunity for local government employees to walk through the game plan. Can you imagine a National Football League team not walking through its game plan before the big game? Local governments need to rehearse their emergency plan so that when an emergency or disaster occurs, employees know exactly what to expect and what to do. Governments are very good about developing plans and then placing them on shelves. Emergency management plans should be dog eared because employees are regularly training for and exercising the plan so that when it is needed, they respond according to the plan.

All communities are vulnerable to some type of disaster or emergency. There may be a chemical spill or a fire at a furniture store or factory. The disaster may come in the form of a train derailment, an airplane crash, or a tanker truck crash. An emergency in a community may be a gasoline station accident or a natural gas explosion or a chlorine leak at the local water plant. It may take the form of a pandemic illness or a nuclear power plant failure. It might be a hurricane, tornado, earthquake, volcanic eruption, wildfires, heavy rain, or flood. A good emergency management plan will embrace concepts that allow the local government to effectively respond to and recover from all types of emergencies. The best approach is to build a plan around an all-hazards approach rather than focus on a single type of disaster or emergency.

Employees Are Essential

One aspect of emergency management that is often overlooked is the employees who are responsible for responding to and recovering from a disaster. This really involves all employees. A concept that is now out of date involves dividing employees into two categories: essential and non-essential. If your emergency management plan uses this concept, it needs to be revised immediately. There is no such thing as a non-essential employee. Employees may be needed at different times, but each one is essential to a community’s response and recovery.

The emergency plan for Port Orange, Florida, classifies employees as essential. Annually, department heads review employees’ specific assignments. All employees are given detailed instruction on tasks they will be asked to perform and where they will report should their emergency function be activated. Port Orange employees know that it is not a question of whether they are needed but when they will be needed. When Port Orange shifted to this arrangement, the change had a pronounced effect on employees. Now, they fully understand that all of them are needed and are essential to the city in responding to an emergency or disaster.

The city provides time for employees to prepare their homes when a hurricane threat has been identified. Teams are split so that while one team is taking care of their homes, the other team is preparing the city government for the storm. Then the teams reverse roles. This has proven effective.

A lesson that Port Orange learned early was that if you expect your employees to perform, then you must think about their safety and the safety of their families. In a natural disaster, city employees are victims, too. In 2004, many Port Orange employees’ properties were heavily damaged by the hurricanes that came through Florida. Yet those same employees were expected to do specific job tasks so that the greater community could begin rebuilding after the devastation caused by the hurricanes.

Port Orange also has developed an employee and family shelter plan, with the city providing shelter space for employees and their immediate family members. In 1998, the city offered to shelter contractor employees and their families as well— the contractors who would be needed immediately after the storm. Their equipment was staged and ready to go once the winds subsided. In 2004, the city expanded its shelter space to include animals. Today, about two-thirds of the employees are signed up to stay at one of two employee emergency shelters.

Why did Port Orange develop a shelter program for its employees? First, the city was concerned about the safety of employees and their families. Second, if the employees were in a city shelter, the city knew where they were, and if it needed specific expertise, then it could quickly call on the right employee. Third, it was good for employee morale. Fourth, when the storm was over, the employees were prepared to immediately respond to community needs. Finally, it sent a clear message that the city, as an employer, did care about the safety of its employees and their families. Who is eligible for sheltering? The city leaves that to the employees to determine. If an employee is responsible for the care of a family member, then the family member is eligible to stay in a family shelters. The employees have a clear understanding of who is eligible to stay in the shelters.

Staffing of shelters is handled by the Parks and Recreation Department, which recruits volunteers from the families who are signed up to stay in the shelter to assist in staffing it. Family members who are staying in the shelter want to help in opening shelters; signing people in and out of the shelter; staffing various functions, including food preparation; cleaning the shelter; and closing the shelter.

The city set up a program that allows employees to acquire generators and cash in sick and/or vacation leave to pay for a generator. If an employee does not want to cash in sick or vacation leave, the city will make a short-term loan to the employee. The employee agrees to repay the loan with a payroll deduction. The city holds vacation or sick leave in escrow as security for the loan. Thanks to this program, many employees’ homes now have emergency power.

In 2004, many employees did not have any place to stay because electricity had not been restored to their homes. In cooperation with the local lodging industry, the city was able to provide them with housing vouchers as well as a restaurant voucher. This allowed families to have one hot meal together each day and have a place to shower and rest.

Because both parents in many families work, a major employee concern during an emergency is child care. This is especially true during the emergency response phase, when schools may still be closed. The city has revised its plan to include a child care element. Knowing that dependable child care is available for their children allows Port Orange employees to focus on the job of helping the city recover.

Public Communication Is Essential to Successful Emergency Response and Recovery

In 2004, as Hurricane Charley was heading toward Port Orange, the Regional Communications Center began receiving telephone calls from individuals wanting to know why the wind was blowing so hard. For several days, radio, television, and newspapers had been tracking Hurricane Charley as it approached the west coast of Florida. The Citizens Information Center began receiving similar calls. Hillsborough County, Florida, did a survey after the 2004 storm season and found that a large number of residents had not been aware that a hurricane was approaching nor were they aware of the danger and damage that a hurricane can bring to a community.

The ordinary methods and means of communication may no longer be enough to convey to residents what is happening. Many residents no longer tune in to regular television channels. Many do not listen to local radio stations. Many access the news on line, if at all.

Communicating with residents will require new communications techniques. It will require using emerging technologies as well as conventional methods. A well-informed public is essential to successful emergency management response and recovery.

The Citizens Information Center is an essential element of the overall communications plan. The Citizens Information Center is a non-emergency number that citizens can call to obtain information, provide information, or request service from the city during an emergency. It is staffed by experienced customer service representatives who handle calls from citizens as part of their normal duties. They are used to handling distressed and emotional citizens. The center is able to provide information to the community and relieve the 911 emergency center by handling the non-emergency calls. Not only did the city’s customer service representatives provide information over the telephone, they called back the next day to check on the resident who had called the previous day. The city gained valuable information simply from these telephone calls. For example, it verified whether a specific area had electricity and received valuable data that could be transmitted to field crews.

One city council member answers telephones in the center during the emergency response phase and in the initial recovery phase. It is an effective way of communicating to the residents, many of whom found it reassuring to speak to an elected official. The city also had a core of citizen volunteers who were trained to handle citizen calls. The city staffed the Citizens Information Center through the response period until the emergency operations center was closed.

In 2004, Port Orange used its website as well as conventional television and radio to keep residents informed. Part of the communications plan was to purchase ads on local radio stations. The city could address rumors immediately by changing the ad, tailoring the message depending on what issue was being addressed and communicating vital information to residents in a different way.

A third element of the city’s communications plan is its cable television channel. Today, many local governments have their own television channel on cable. Port Orange simulcasts its programs on its website.

Besides emergency response and recovery, it is equally important that a communications plan include a pre-emergency, pre-disaster element as well. Communicating with residents using multiple methods before an event is essential. In 2004, the city conducted special training for the business community to assist them in evaluating their risk before the start of hurricane season. Citizen Emergency Response Teams were formed in many of neighborhoods. They were trained to help while waiting for city crews to reach them. The city’s Public Education Specialist in the Fire Department and the Crime Prevention Officer in the Police Department held extensive neighborhood association meetings and training. “Check on a neighbor” plans were initiated as part of the city’s communication plan to make sure that neighbors were informed and prepared.

Neighborhood associations and local businesses worked together to host events leading up to the start of hurricane season, helping residents prepare. Too many residents wait until the last minute to begin their preparation. The city’s communications plan encouraged them to begin preparing well in advance, repeating the message that they need to be self-sufficient for up to 72 hours. Many residents have said that they cannot afford to purchase water and food to support themselves for up to 72 hours. If each week a family would add one can of prepared food to its emergency food and water kit, it would not take long to fully stock the kit.

When an evacuation order is given, Port Orange pairs one of its city council members with a public safety unit. The city has found this an effective way to convey to reluctant residents the importance of leaving.

One lesson learned after an event is to allow the community to vent. Port Orange experienced extensive flooding during Hurricane Francis. The City Council held a series of meetings with residents. The council invited representatives of FEMA, the National Flood Insurance Program, the State Department of Insurance, and insurance companies to attend the forums. It was important that the residents receive good, reliable information.

For several weeks after the storm, the city provided regular written updates to the residents, communicating the status of the recovery effort and the status of FEMA grant applications. Providing the press with regular updates is important. In a major operation, the press updates may be handled through a joint information center. If the event affects only one community, the press updates may be handled by that community. Regardless, it is essential that the messages be accurate, consistent, and coordinated and that the right persons be available to answer questions for the press.

One element of the Port Orange communications plan is to place elected officials on the ground in the hardest-hit neighborhoods, distributing water and ice, giving them direct contact with the public. It allows them to assure the public that the city is doing everything possible to address the problems in their area. It allows the community to see that their elected officials are concerned about their well being. It gives the elected officials a sense of what the community is dealing with. No longer does the public perceive their officials as simply sitting in the emergency operations center out of touch with the situation outside. One result of having officials out in the neighborhoods was that the elected body made better decisions thanks to better awareness of what was occurring.

Networking Can Be Beneficial to Emergency Managers

When the formal system fails or is inadequate to meet the needs of a community in any phase of emergency operations, managers often turn to their network of friends. The stronger and more diverse the network, the more apt a local government is to receive outside assistance. Networking does not always have to be government to government. The connection could begin as business to business. It could involve a governmental official having lived in an impacted community before and establishing contact with officials in that community. The connection could be family. All types of informal networks could create the initial contact with another community.

The informal system works because it is based on relationships. There is confidence because people are dealing with individuals they know. There is a bond and familiarity. However, even though informal networks are initially built around relationships, the success of the response depends on accomplishment.

Examples of Informal Networks

In a time before Emergency Management Assistance Compacts, local governments often turned to their informal networks. In 1989, Hurricane Hugo was bearing down on the coast of South Carolina. New Smyrna Beach (Florida) City Manager Frank Roberts began calling South Carolina managers offering assistance should the hurricane impact their community. Roberts had moved from South Carolina to Florida a few years earlier but had remained in contact with a number of South Carolina managers. At the same time, he was calling Florida city managers to determine whether they would like to join the New Smyrna Beach teams that were preparing to deploy into South Carolina.

Soon after the storm hit the coast of South Carolina, the call came from South Carolina communities: they needed certain assets and resources. A team of employees and equipment from several Florida communities headed north to assist South Carolina cities in their recovery effort.

Soon after the Hugo experience, a number of Florida managers who had provided staffing and equipment began discussions about developing a response model that would allow communities to provide assistance to one another in times of emergency. Although the initial discussion focused on how to respond inside the state, they realized that the scope of the response model needed to be broader, possibly regional.

In 1992, Hurricane Andrew came ashore in South Florida. The outpouring of government offers of assistance to the impacted area was tremendous. Although law enforcement agencies and fire and rescue agencies were called on to provide resources through statewide mutual-aid agreements, the ability to mobilize other components of local government resources to assist in the recovery was limited. Although other states responded with assistance, they determined that there was a need to develop an agreement between states to provide certain protections and the ability to seek and receive reimbursement for assisting in the recovery effort.

Florida Governor Lawton Chiles proposed to the Southern state governors that an agreement be developed between the Southern states to provide assistance to one another in times of emergency. This agreement became the nationwide model for Emergency Management Assistance Compacts—which have proven to be valuable tools for sharing resources and assets nationwide.

At the same time, the Florida City-County Management Association recognized a need to provide a coordinated response in the area. Cities from all across Florida volunteered assets and resources to assist South Florida in the recovery effort. North Miami City Manager Michael Roberto agreed to serve as the liaison between cities and counties that wanted to assist in the recovery. The association’s Board of Directors District Members agreed to coordinate assets from their specific areas of the state. Roberto, working with the local governments that had been affected, would notify the District Directors of the community’s needs; the District Directors would respond to him with a list of assets and resources that were available from cities and counties in their parts of Florida for deployment. After he received commitments from the District Directors, he would notify them of what needed to be deployed from their areas of the state. North Miami became the staging point for deploying the assets into Homestead and Florida City.

In Port Orange’s case, the city was involved in responding on multiple fronts. The Port Orange Public Works Director and the Homestead Public Works Director were college friends. Almost immediately after the storm, Port Orange had an advance team on the ground in Homestead because of that personal contact. Based on the identified need, Port Orange began deploying personnel, equipment, and supplies to Homestead by the end of the first week. Port Orange’s involvement in the recovery lasted six months. The city’s teams worked in such key areas as debris management, emergency operations center relief, code enforcement, building inspection, and employee assistance (Port Orange city employees went to the impacted area on their own time, taking sheets of plywood and roofing material to assist local government employees in protecting their properties). Fire service and law enforcement personnel were also deployed into the impacted areas, via statewide mutual-aid agreements.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, many in local government were familiar with the North Carolina Emergency Management Plan and its ability to mobilize state and local resources to provide assistance locally during an emergency. Many managers began discussing how the North Carolina concept could be improved upon and developed so that resources could be placed where they were needed, regardless of state boundaries and jurisdictional lines. However, as after Hugo, the effort did not at first go beyond the discussion stage.

It has been observed (though not confirmed empirically) that local governments that have strong informal ties with other jurisdictions have been able to obtain and secure resources from outside the impacted area quicker than local governments that have weaker informal ties and that depend on state government to provide the recovery resources. When the formal network fails to provide the resources needed, local governments with strong informal connections tend to activate their informal network to obtain the supplies and equipment necessary to sustain their recovery effort. For example, in 2004, the generator at the Port Orange Water Treatment Plant was required to run for an extended period because three hurricanes hit the area. Although the water treatment plant was a priority facility, restoring power to it had been delayed because of downed power lines caused by fallen trees. The city notified the county, and in turn the county notified the state of the need for a large generator. Because of delays identifying a generator of suitable size via the formal system, the city turned to its informal network of other local governments with sources outside Florida. Through the informal network, the city located not only a generator large enough to power the water treatment plant, but a truckload of smaller generators as well.

The informal network has some pitfalls, however. Because it is based on relationships, communities with good informal networks can receive more assistance from other local governments than communities with leaders who do not have an extensive network. There is also the problem of limited coordination of resources and assets. The request for resources may not go through channels and therefore may not establish accountability for the resources and assets. There may be legal exposure for worker’s compensation or for law enforcement responding without proper authorization. A responding community that does not have an in-state inter-local agreement with the impacted community, or has not been asked through the state office of emergency management to provide assistance, or is responding to another state without Emergency Management Assistance Compact authorization, may lose its eligibility for reimbursement. These things must be considered when responding using the informal approach.

The Formal Approach Provides Better Coordination of Assets and Resources

Most states have statewide mutual-aid agreements in place. These agreements usually cover certain organized skill sets, such as law enforcement, fire, rescue, emergency medical, and public works. They are normally activated to meet a specific service requirement.

Some years ago, the Florida Fire Chiefs Association, working with the State Office of Emergency Management, developed an emergency response plan that enabled coordinated deployment of fire, rescue, and emergency medical assets and resources. This meant that the right resources were brought to bear in each incident. The plan organized the state into regions; regional coordinators worked with individual local departments to provide assets and staffing when a resource was requested. The strength of the plan was its use of common terminology so that when a specific asset was requested from the state by a local community through the county emergency operations center, the correct equipment and staffing were deployed to meet the community’s need. Law enforcement agencies have developed a similar approach to deploying assets and resources to impacted communities.

In 1994, the State of Florida asked local governments to enter a statewide mutual-aid agreement that would cover public works agencies. Most cities and counties willingly signed on and executed the statewide agreement. In 1995, the state for the first time activated the mutual- aid agreement when a hurricane hit the panhandle area. Many local governments throughout the state deployed public works components to assist other local governments in their recovery effort. Although still in place, this statewide mutual aid agreement now sees limited use.

Many local governments have entered city-to-city or county-to-county mutual aid agreements, which state that should a community be impacted by an emergency, the signatory governments will respond with resources to assist that local government in its recovery effort. The governments normally look for commonalities when putting together this type of agreement. For example, the communities may be of similar size and located geographically where they would not normally be impacted by the same emergency. The governments may use similar computer software packages so that they can support each other’s operation if one government’s computer system is damaged or inoperative. Many communities actually exchange computer backup tapes with their mutual-aid partners daily.

Ideally, communities that have formal agreements will plan together as well as train together. Every year, the communities should exercise what they would do if an emergency impacted one of them. This allows employees to get to know one another and familiarizes them with the other community so that if an event occurs, the responding group is not going into an unknown area. Although many of the community-to-community mutual-aid agreements are field oriented, they are flexible enough to dependably provide whatever assets and resources are needed to assist a community in its recovery.

Although a mutual-aid agreement between communities may begin as an informal arrangement, it provides a method to better use resources. The impacted community can make it known to the county and the state that certain resources have been requested from its mutual-aid partners, so the county and state will not have to meet that need.

An Integrated Approach to Emergency Response

Since 1989, Florida cities and counties have been discussing a different approach to responding to emergencies. The response to Hurricane Andrew was the first real attempt at an integrated approach to emergency management. Although cities and counties brought a large amount of resources to South Florida, there was no formal plan of action and no formal coordination of the deployment of the non-police and fire assets and resources at the state emergency operations center.

In 2005, as the photographs from Hurricane Katrina flashed across television screens, many local government managers in Florida and in other states were shocked. In 2004, Florida had been rocked by hurricanes. The pictures of the Gulf Coast after Katrina brought back memories of what had occurred in Florida. Katrina really gave Florida’s cities an opportunity to move from talk to action in forming integrated functional teams to deploy to the hardest-hit areas.

Although specialized teams and personnel from Florida were deployed to Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama, the impacted communities needed other assets and resources besides law enforcement, emergency management, and fire, rescue, and emergency medical. Like most cities throughout the United States, Port Orange and many other governing bodies throughout Florida wanted to help. They saw resources pouring into larger communities but saw that many smaller communities were being left unattended and unnoticed. The Port Orange City Council asked whether the city’s staff could work with a smaller community needing assistance in the impacted area. Port Orange Assistant City Manager William Whitson said he knew of such a community: He and his family had lived in Long Beach, Mississippi, some years before, and he was familiar with it. The City Council authorized the City Manager to make contact with Long Beach officials to see what type of assistance they needed.

Whitson made contact with the Long Beach emergency management officials, who indicated that they did need and want assistance. What began as an informal approach developed into a long-term formal response program to assist Long Beach under Emergency Management Assistance Compact authorization.

Thirteen Florida communities came together and formed response teams to assist Long Beach. An advance team made the initial trip to Long Beach to assess the need so that proper equipment and personnel could be deployed on the first mission. Also, it was important that each team be self-sufficient. Besides working with the community leaders to assess their need and determine what components were needed in the first task force to be deployed, the advance team worked out the logistics and location issues for the base camp and for task force headquarters.

Long Beach asked that Port Orange purchase certain supplies that Long Beach had been unable to obtain and have the advance team deliver them to Long Beach. Whitson was designated its leader and would be overall mission coordinator, working each week with the team that was deployed and forming relief teams every 10 days based upon the mission requirements. Each deployment team had a task force leader who was responsible for coordinating its activities and was working with Long Beach officials to identify new task requirements for future teams.

Working with the Long Beach Emergency Management officials, Whitson determined that the initial task force needed a diverse group of people, including a finance team to help Long Beach reestablish its financial management systems, computer and data-processing support personnel to reestablish the city’s computer system, personnel who could help reestablish the internal telephone system, geographic information system personnel to assist in damage assessment, public works and public utilities personnel to help in debris management and utility restoration, a fire and rescue component, and a security component.

Logistics coordination for the deployed teams was handled back in Port Orange by the overall mission leader. Logistics management included purchasing and finance personnel who made sure that the deployed teams had the right food, supplies, and equipment. The logistics support activity also was responsible for coordinating with the city of Pensacola, Florida, which was the staging point for the task force each week. If supplies were needed, the logistics group would coordinate with the city of Pensacola to have them delivered to the deployed task force. Periodically, during the 12-week deployment, maintenance teams from the cooperating cities and counties would be deployed to Long Beach to check and service equipment.

Many of the identified tasks did not require the deployment of personnel to Long Beach. Tasks such as FEMA reimbursement assistance could be handled from Florida. After the initial deployments of information services personnel, many of their tasks could be handled from their home work stations in cooperation with Long Beach personnel. Also, the personnel writing grant applications did not have to deploy: they could work with Long Beach officials via telephone.

Flexibility became key to the deployment’s success, because the mission was ever changing. The weekly mission goals would be adjusted based on the situation in Long Beach. The mission coordinator talked daily with the team leader and with the city of Long Beach emergency management officials. There was a daily briefing for all participating local governments so that they could be up to date on what was occurring in the field. There were weekly planning telephone calls to prepare for future deployments.

After the Katrina experience, the Florida City-County Management Association, working through the Florida League of Cities and the Florida Association of Counties, began a discussion with the State Office of Emergency Services about the integrated team concept. The Florida City-County Management Association articulated the need to have pre-identified personnel and equipment ready for deployment. The State Emergency Management Office was very supportive of the concept, and the Florida City-County Management Association offered to staff a liaison at the state emergency operations center during emergencies to coordinate local government deployment needs.

A meeting was set between the Florida City-County Management Association and Florida Governor Jeb Bush to discuss the concept. He endorsed the concept and instructed the State Office of Emergency Services to work with the Florida League of Cities, the Florida Association of Counties, and the Florida City-County Management Association in developing the concept.

Two pilot areas of the state were selected: the Tampa Bay region and Central Florida. Meetings of emergency management professionals and managers have been held in both areas. It was agreed that a plan must be developed. Two mission coordinators were appointed from the pilot areas along with individuals who will serve as county coordinators to help in staffing the teams. The ultimate objective is to have pre-identified, preformed, trained teams ready to be deployed.

The Need for a Comprehensive Resource Management System

After Hurricane Katrina, local governments across the country felt a kinship with people along the Gulf Coast and wanted to help. They had employees who were prepared and ready to respond. They had equipment ready to be deployed. However, what was missing was a way to connect assets and equipment with communities that needed them. Many local governments notified their state emergency management office that they were prepared to deploy to the impacted area, but relatively few local governments were called on to provide services. State emergency managers have a sense of what is available for responding should an emergency strike. However, they do not have an accurate record of personnel skills, equipment, and other resources that may be available for deployment.

During the aftermath of Katrina, some local governments actually sent personnel and equipment into the devastated area without proper Emergency Management Assistance Compact authorization. Many were told to return home. Others simply freelanced because there was an unmet need. Freelancing creates additional problems for communities affected by disaster. Although well intended, both freelancing and units showing up without authorization create legal issues for both the sending government and for the impacted area. They might not be eligible for reimbursement, and employees of a local government operating outside an Emergency Management Assistance Compact might not carry with them the legal protections that they would otherwise have.

In 2004, the International City/County Management Association Executive Board under the leadership of the association’s president, Tom Lundy from North Carolina, identified a need to provide a more formal network of local governments that have resources available when an emergency strikes. The association’s members were frustrated about having assets and resources and hearing about unmet needs in impacted communities.

The association began exploring partnership opportunities that could provide a method of establishing a nationwide network to be tapped in an emergency. Local governments have the expertise to assist other local governments. They have equipment that could be deployed quickly and efficiently. They are motivated by service, not monetary profits (yes, they are interested in covering their cost, but the motivating factor is to restore service quickly and efficiently). Local governments also understand the language of local government.

“Consider the possibilities of a disaster-assistance system that relies instead on a network of partnerships among cities and counties, supported by a sophisticated database of human and material resources for emergency response and recovery (where) assets could be identified and local government response teams could be certified, trained and deployed for all four phases of a disaster—preparation, response, recovery, and restoration,” said Robert O’Neal, the International City/County Management Association Executive Director. “Consider, too, changes in the intergovernmental system that allows officials to cut through bureaucracies to get help into affected areas more quickly.” What his association, the Florida City-County Management Association, and other associations have been advocating is a community-centered approach to local emergency response and recovery. However, without a good database and interconnected system of information that is transparent to all levels of emergency managers and operating in real time, emergency managers cannot utilize and mobilize the strength that is available in the 89,000 units of local government.

Just think: what if the state emergency operations center, county center, or even a city emergency operations center could access a nationwide network of resources and materials that are available to be deployed immediately. This would allow emergency managers to quickly locate resources that are needed and requisition those resources.

Based on input from its membership, the International City/County Management Association began discussing a network approach to emergency management: a multijurisdictional, multidisciplinary resource for emergency response, recovery, and restoration—an approach that includes personal networks enhanced by using technological tools to identify and deploy physical and human resources to impacted communities.

The association established the following goals for the National Emergency Management Network:

  • Maximize the effective use of local and regional resources to address emergencies, save lives, protect property, and restore communities
  • Strengthen formal and informal networks so that resources can be quickly deployed to help communities respond to and recover from an emergency
  • Strengthen existing technology linkages to help local government managers locate, allocate, and deploy needed resources
  • Develop new technology to assist local governments in locating, deploying, tracking, and accounting for resources needed by communities before, during, and after an emergency
  • Speed reimbursements
  • Emphasize sustainability

The International City/County Management Association formed a partnership with the Public Entity Risk Institute to create the technology needed to support the National Emergency Management Network. During beta testing of the software packages, local governments said that the software needed to be something they could use daily, not just in emergencies. The software also needed to be web based. It needed to provide emergency managers with information on availability of human resources as well as equipment and materials. It needed to be able to track assets that have been deployed. It needed to be linked to a geographic information system. It needed to have the latest cost codes from FEMA and be populated with the latest FEMA forms so that reimbursements could be quickly sought. It needed to be able to track inventory as well as shipments.

Beyond the software, the network would be built around the concept of local and regional mutual aid. The concept embraces the preformed, multidisciplinary, integrated teams that are trained and ready for deployment. It recognized that personnel and equipment from all sectors of local and state government will be needed and deployed to an impacted area. To be successful, the concept must be flexible, because one size does not fit all. Each team deployed to assist another local government would have to be tailored to a specific mission.

The National Emergency Management Network is envisioned to train community leaders to emphasize collaboration in preparing for, responding to, and recovering from emergencies. One desired outcome is to harness the energy of the 89,000 local government units. This would mean creating a network of well-trained local government employees who can be quickly deployed to an impacted area. Another desired outcome is to develop an integrated software system that allows emergency managers to deploy, track, communicate, and manage all resources before, during, and after an emergency.

Over the next several years, it is hoped that the National Emergency Management Network will become the model for activating local government resources to respond to an area when a disaster strikes. With the resources catalogued and available to emergency managers, the closest available resources at the lowest possible cost could be easily identified and dispatched to assist the impacted communities. The receiving community would know that the individuals who have been dispatched have received proper training and are properly equipped to meet the identified needs.


Before Hurricane Andrew hit South Florida in 1992, there was no formal network that allowed states to assist states. The farsightedness of the governors of the Southern states in creating the model to deploy resources from one state to another created a new era in emergency management. The Southern states’ agreement evolved into the Emergency Management Assistance Compact system in use today.

In the same way that the United States sees the National Guard and Reserves as resources that are available to be deployed to areas to assist regular military units, local governments should be seen as a national resource that is available for mobilization and deployment during a disaster. It will require expenditure of resources to develop a software package that will help emergency managers to know in real time what resources are available, where they are, and what is ready to be deployed. It will require training of personnel. It will require a formation of teams.

Federal funds need to be allocated to develop software packages that can be used by federal, state, and local government officials. The software package needs to be interconnected so that the emergency managers at all levels can communicate. An emergency manager could Google a resource and quickly identify its availability, whether from the public sector or a private-sector vendor, and immediately requisition that resource and deploy it to where it is needed. In 2004 and again in 2005, faxes, emails, and telephone calls were used by emergency managers to identify resources. Receiving a response in many cases depended on somebody monitoring the fax, email, or telephones. By investing in the technology, emergency managers increase their capability to respond to and recover from a disaster.

Individuals need to be identified for deployment teams. Just as military units train together, it is important that the emergency management teams train together. This will require funding from the state and federal governments.

Emergency management normally takes a back seat until an event occurs. Then it is too late to train personnel and create software packages to assist in the decision making. Far too few local governments take advantage of the training opportunities available through FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute. Far too few conduct emergency management exercises. Far too few keep their emergency management plans up to date.

Local governments, personnel, and equipment should be considered national assets that can quickly and easily mobilize. If this is done correctly, the communities hit by a disaster can recover quicker.

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