They say that every disaster is local.
An earthquake across the globe eliminates supplies for businesses here in town. A wildfire destroys homes and habitat, launching a long recovery process. A flood wipes out an entire neighborhood.
And in every case, those affected turn to their city and county officials for help.
With that in mind, the International City/County Management Association put some experienced members together to address the issue of disasters and how to deal with them.
Don’t miss a thing. Get breaking news alerts delivered right to your inbox
Every single speaker agreed that preparedness and communication were key.
Santa Clarita City Manager Ken Pulskamp was on that panel, noting that since the city incorporated 23 years ago, a State of Emergency has been declared 11 times.
“Unfortunately, we seem to be a magnet for disasters,” he said. “We were just a few miles from the epicenter of the Northridge earthquake and since then, we’ve seen fires and floods and death and destruction. I have more experience with disaster than I had cared to have when I started my career.”
With all that experience, Santa Clarita’s staff is well-versed in both preparation and response. Pulskamp said that communication, both between staff and agencies and with the public, is critical.
“Communication before, during and after an emergency is important,” he said. “Integrating social media into our emergency planning model has become an important component of community preparedness.”
“We give people an opportunity to sign up for text alerts, Twitter messages and Facebook. They want to know where they can go, what they should do and how they can best protect their families. This provides us an opportunity to get information out, which we double and triple check”
Instant communication has its drawbacks, Pulskamp admitted.
“Before we put that out there, we double and triple check the information one hundred percent of the time. It’s hard to get good information out, but it’s also difficult to prevent bad information from getting out.”
Pulskamp credited partnerships as part of the City’s success in riding out disasters and said that the time to get together is before the chaos hits.
“During an emergency is not the time to create partnerships,” he said. “Before a disaster hits, it’s important for city and county officials to get to know people at their hospitals, water agencies, federal and state governments. All these different partners come together and you need to have those relationships in place prior to an emergency.
Other panelists, which included Ron Carlee, former County Manager of Arlington County, Virginia (working 9/11/01 when Pentagon was attacked); Bill Fraser, the City Manager of Montpelier, Vermont; Aden Hogan, former Assistant City Manager of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, (working in 1995 when Murrah Federal Building was bombed) and Elisabeth Keller, CEO of the Center for State and Local Government Excellence, chimed in on the importance of social media in dealing with emergencies.
Many admitted that they initially saw Twitter as “meaningless drivel.”
Pulskamp pointed out that our City seized a recent emergency as an opportunity to get people signed up for the city’s feed.
“During the last event, the number of people that signed up increased 1,500 percent,” he said. “They found that this was a good way to get good information immediately,” adding a recommendation that all cities and municipalities act now to sign people up for these services.
Hogan recalled that day in 1995 when the Oklahoma City bombing made terrorism became a possibility for any community with a federal courthouse.
“Communication was the key,” he said, adding that preparation has become a priority.
“Mutual aid agreements should be done early, you’re not in a good place to negotiate one of those on the day of the disaster. If there are 10 rules to successful emergency preparedness, probably 5 of them are planning. You need to ask the questions of who, what, when, where and how.”
Consolidating information is another time- and life-saver.
“One of the things we found in the Oklahoma City response was reducing the number of things we have to have happen to a list. Nobody has time to read a book during a disaster.
“Activating resources and assigning responsibility is important,” he added. “If you can reduce action items to a checklist, you’ll be in a much better position.”
He also stressed flexibility in the handling of disasters.
“Flexibility equals success,” Hogan said. “Don’t lock yourself into a single approach. As things change, allow yourself to change direction to keep up with your event.”
“You don’t have to plan for every possible event in the world, but plan for that which is most probable, so that you can have a platform to adjust when you have to respond to that which is improbable,” added Carlee.
Fraser, who said that they are the “quintessential New England town” and, at 8,000 population, the smallest state capitol in the country, said that terrorist acts have made them aware that, although they are small, they are the first capitol city over the Canadian border.
A year ago, Montpelier set up social networking for distributing news that appears on the city’s website.
“We set up a system that any news on our website automatically links to Facebook and Twitter,” he said. “People have to choose to go to your website, but they look at Facebook and Twitter. When they get past what’s going on with their friends, they get the news. We found that people were re-posting to their personal accounts and the word spread that way as well.”
Fraser said that registration shot up “astronomically” during the recent river flooding.
All on the panel agreed that the bottom line in handling disasters wasn’t government readiness, but personal preparation.
“We are keenly aware that the first responders are really our families and neighbors, and preparedness is not just an institutional challenge, it’s something that each and every individual and household needs to do,” said Carlee.
Pulskamp supported Carlee’s recommendation.
“We tell the members of our public that they need to be prepared to not count on the city for the first 72 hours,” he said. “They need to have water, food, medicine whatever they need to take care of their family .Need to know how to turn off water and gas, particular in case of an earthquake. They need to know their neighbors and have generators available if that’s at all possible and take every precaution possible so they can do whatever they need to do for 72 hours.”
There are several resources available for people to prepare. For information from the City of Santa Clarita’s Emergency Preparedness department, click here.
Information on Los Angeles County’s Emergency Survival Program is available here; a new book covering all varieties of emergencies, called the Emergency Survival Guide is available from Supervisor Michael Antonovich’s office.
A personal wildfire action plan, called “Ready! Set! Go!” is available from the Los Angeles County Fire Department; copies can be picked up at any fire station, or downloaded here.