LIMA — Emergency situations can arise without warning, with consequences ranging from the inconvenient to the tragic. Along with law enforcement and first responders, county emergency management agencies play an important, yet often unseen role in maintaining public safety.
“We’re not the front runners,” Auglaize County EMA director Troy Anderson said. “We’re not the ones you see with the big red trucks or the cruisers. We’re the ones sitting back trying to help. We’re not there to get notoriety.”
Emergency management can cover a variety of situations, from natural disasters to terrorist attacks, and it is up to each county agency to be able to be fully prepared to respond to whatever comes their way.
“You have to train to know how to react to whatever comes your way because there are those unpredictable events,” Putnam County Office of Public Safety director Michael Klear said.
The work of an emergency management agency can be divided into four phases: planning and exercises, response to the incident, recovery and mitigation to lessen the impact of similar events in the future, with all four phases constantly cycling.
Allen County EMA director Russ Decker noted that plans for one emergency can be applied to others, such as during Saturday’s explosion at Lima Husky Refinery.
“Part of our plans include how we would secure the refinery in the event of a terrorist attack, and we were able to use that Saturday when the refinery had the fire,” he said. “We had identified what intersections we needed to roadblock to shut down that area, and law enforcement was already familiar with where those intersections were.”
In Auglaize County, Anderson has to consider various factors specific to his county when it comes to planning for disasters.
“I have over 70 reporting facilities, anywhere from agricultural to chemical, and I also have the rail lines and I also look at commodity flow studies to see what is actually being transported either by rail, highway or pipeline to make sure we have everything in place and have a plan,” he said.
Once plans are in place, the next step is holding drills and exercises.
“It’s a requirement every year that every county has to do an exercise, be it a tabletop, functional or full scale out of their plan to respond to and be able to mitigate through a disaster, whether man-made, terrorist or a natural disaster,” Anderson said.
Decker emphasized that the exercise is not so much to ensure that agencies involved know their jobs, but rather to evaluate the plan itself.
“We’re trying to see if the plan works,” he said. “Are there gaps? So we then adjust our plan, and the cycle starts again.”
Part of what helps EMAs be as prepared as possible is to deal with consequences rather than causes.
“If we lose power, it doesn’t really matter why we lost power, whether someone shut down the power grid or if there was a tornado,” Decker said. “The impact will be the same.”
Dealing with natural disasters, like tornadoes or flooding, or deliberate acts, including terrorism, all come down to communication among agencies, according to Anderson.
“We work with local law enforcement so they can give us an idea of what they’re seeing and what’s going on,” he said. “We work with the state Department of Homeland Security.”
That cooperation can also extend to resources and equipment, especially in rural counties.
“If there’s something we don’t have, other counties may make something accessible to us, and the state has a lot of resources available to us upon request,” Klear said.
Recovery and mitigation
Crisis recovery can be a matter of days, weeks or years, depending on the situation. In the case of the refinery explosion, those efforts can include initiatives like repairing windows broken from the blast.
“Katrina is still in recovery because it was that catastrophic,” Decker said.
Mitigation efforts can range from buying homes in floodzones to prevent losses to enhancing emergency sirens or alert systems. Throughout, EMAs continue to review and revise their work behind the scenes as they continue to work to keep communities safe.
“We’re constantly reviewing and critiquing ourselves to be the best that we can,” Klear said.