County Comment: Emergency Preparedness in Washington County
Emergency Preparedness in Washington County
by Norman Bassett
Washington County Public Information Officer
Washington County was ready to respond in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and is prepared for future emergencies of all types.
Following the devastating destruction to one of America's most beautiful and beloved cities and its people, plans were set in motion that would provide assistance to survivors, and aid in the clean up efforts in the gulf coast region.
The County's Division of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) assessed resources, both human and equipment, to be ready to send assistance teams, should requests be made from FEMA.
DFES Director Joe Kroboth asked County department heads to evaluate staffing and discuss the possibility of deployment with their staff. Kroboth said the DFES office had received number of requests for resources in the days following Katrina, and was prepared to cooperate should the call come from federal emergency management officials.
Teams of employees would be assembled from both County paid positions and volunteers. Emergency incident management team members (Commanders and EOC personnel), 911 Call takers, Emergency Medical Technicians, Nurses, Veterinarians, Physicians, Law Enforcement Officers, Structural Engineers, Civil Engineers, Public Works equipment operators, laborers, and managers, Cost accountants, Swift water rescue teams and Public Health Officials could be included in those teams.
In addition, equipment requested included 4 Wheel Drive vehicles, Water purification system equipment, Ambulances, Incident Command Vehicles, Vehicles capable of operating in deep water, and Boats.
In its regular meeting on September 13th, the Board of County Commissioners heard Kroboth detail a plan put in place regarding coordination of housing services to evacuees from Hurricane Katrina. DFES, The Red Cross, Department of Social Services, REACH, the Health Department and a number of faith-based agencies held meetings to discuss the issue and plan joint coordination.
A scenario was developed that would have processed evacuees at a reception area, and provided temporary housing at a hotel, until match-ups with local families could be completed. About 40 families in the County had offered to take evacuees into their homes. The refugees would have stayed with local families for an undetermined period, possibly as long as 6 months. Some 100-125 families could have been assisted, and the County would have needed 36-48 hours advance notice to finalize its process. Cost to County Government would have been reimbursed by FEMA at a later date.
Kroboth told the Board that a number of conference calls with MEMA and FEMA had been held, and that if a request for housing assistance were not received by that evening, then there would not be a large influx of refugees. About 1 p.m. that day an announcement from FEMA and MEMA was received, that all Maryland Counties would "stand down" regarding mass sheltering of evacuees by FEMA standards.
Washington County's Comprehensive Emergency Operations Plan was presented to the Commissioners and adopted in 2004, following extensive revision by DFES. Part of that plan covers mass sheltering of refugees due to weather or terrorist activities.
Training events and exercises for first responders are ongoing. One of the most recent was the joint event held by the Washington County Local Emergency Planning Committee and Norfolk Southern Railroad in which a specially equipped train made a one-day stop in Hagerstown to give fire and emergency personnel training in transportation-related hazardous materials incidents.
County Administrator Rod Shoop cited the DFES use of Homeland Security grant funds in aiding the County preparedness program. In the September 13th Commissioners' meeting, approval was given to purchase a new HazMat vehicle, which would be able to navigate railroad tracks by virtue of a raised undercarriage. Hagerstown is especially vulnerable to hazardous materials incidents because of the number of rail lines that come together in the City.
One of the primary problems in the New Orleans incident was inability of Fire, Rescue, Police and Military to communicate with each other because of the lack of an "interoperable" radio system. Washington County is leveraging Homeland Security funding to reduce cost of the $21 million interoperable emergency communications system that is being put into place, which will allow all fire, ambulance, police and government agencies to communicate to each other.
Kroboth is moving up in the County hierarchy, having recently taken the position of Deputy Director of Public Works. During his tenure, which began on September 11th, 2001, all necessary plans and procedures were put into place for any emergency situations that may arise due to natural or man-made forces.