Break it Down ‘Local Gov’ Style: “Not If, But When”

Posted on January 5, 2016

By David Donnelly, LinkedIn & Twitter, Emergency Management Director, Alachua County, FL

“What keeps you up at night?” is a question often asked of and by emergency managers at conferences and workshops. In regard to my work, I would say that my greatest concern is the diminishing availability of resources. Resources can be people, equipment, supplies, infrastructure or technology. And it does not matter whether the owner is government, private sector, voluntary, or faith-based; we are all experiencing declining budgets and higher costs of doing business.

In 2010, FEMA launched an ongoing effort to proactively scan the disaster preparedness operating environment for coming changes, threats and challenges. This is called the Strategic Foresight Initiative. One of the drivers of change identified was government budgets. Due to the economic downturn in 2007, governments at all levels experienced a decrease in revenues while incurring higher costs for healthcare and retirements, among other things. In a reaction to this, most governments sought to cut expenses by eliminating positions, fleets, and other high ticket items. Emergency Management, which is typically viewed as an insurance policy, has not been immune to these cuts. Additionally, the fountain of Homeland Security funding that the Federal government started to provide post 9-11, has been steadily drying up, leaving the states and locals trying to find the dollars to continue the programs and services begun by the Feds.

Complicating the issue is the rising costs of disasters, which have made Congress take a hard look at how FEMA decides to request a declaration from the President. Both the Congressional Research Office and Government Accounting Office have examined how FEMA arrives at the decision of when to ask the President for a Disaster Declaration. Both have looked at ways to reduce these costs; the chief recommendation being to change the per capita criteria and in essence, make it tougher for impacted jurisdictions to receive a declaration and thus, recoup the public assistance needed to jump start recovery from a disaster.

Money is not the only factor of this multi-faceted issue. Human resources are typically the highest single expense for any organization, public or private. And while some streamlining is possible with technology, the continued elimination of positions is untenable not only for disaster services, but for day to day services as well. For example, the state of Florida cut 11,000 state positions between 2011 and 2014. Many of these jobs were in the Department of Health, which has the responsibility of staffing Special Needs shelters during hurricanes and other incidents. The State has cut another 157 Health positions in Fiscal Year 2016. While Health has taken the brunt of these cuts, they are not the only ones. Transportation, Environmental Protection, and Management Services have all been impacted by recent reductions. What the decision makers fail to realize is that while the Emergency Management agency may not experience direct cuts, cutbacks to other partners has an impact on what Emergency Management does. As Emilie Cooper states: “”You can’t keep cutting resources and people and facilities and expect that when the next public health crisis happens, that we’ll still be ready”. This is true for any crisis.

However, it isn’t all “doom and gloom”. These challenges have allowed us to begin engaging new partners across a broad spectrum. Alachua County has always benefitted from having the University of Florida here and the kind of community that comes with it. As FEMA notes: “Wealthier [communities] with stronger infrastructure and better-educated populations will be in a more advantageous position to deal with disasters and emergencies than poorer ones.” We have always felt that because of the resources we have here, we would be less likely to appeal to the State for resources, or at least not as quickly as some of our neighbors.

However, we lack a collaborative network of resource providers and the ability to communicate needs and “who has what” across that network. Emergency managers are systems thinkers, or should be, by the nature of our trade. We do not own a lot of resources but rely on the kindness of others to bring their assets to the table. Therefore, we have to connect the dots – finding resources to match existing and future needs. Currently, we are working on engaging the business community in more meaningful ways and educating them on the services we can provide to them. Part of the effort is to bring them into our Sharing Together for Alachua’s Resilience (STAR) Coalition, a sort of renovated VOAD. On the flip side, we are asking the private sector for assistance with things like Virtual Operations Support Team and Adopt-A-POD (point of distribution).

Our efforts are not limited to businesses either. We are engaging regional partners through a Health Care Coalition. This group spans 11 counties in two regions with a focus on health care system preparedness. It is building a network of resources that can be mobilized during a crisis. Additionally, we have launched House of Worship and Disaster Resilient Neighborhood preparedness programs to engage these communities and prepare our County at the “street level”. I feel that if churches could prepare their facilities and congregants for disaster that would go a long way in a time of disaster. Beyond that, if these same congregations would offer their facilities to be a Community Anchor Point (a place to get a meal, a shower or information) or Adopt-A-Shelter (staff a shelter) that would help develop our resilience. I truly believe in order for our County to be prepared our cities and ergo, our neighborhoods, Houses of Worship and businesses must be prepared.

There’s an old saying in our business – all disasters are local. Ultimately, local governments have the responsibility to prepare our communities for disaster and these challenges provide an opportunity to strengthen our resilience and broaden our network in light of coming changes.

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