Soon after Punxsutawney Phil came out of his hole and saw his shadow in February 2014, the National Weather Service issued a winter weather advisory that would affect at least 26 states. Two weeks later, the same region of the country was again under a similar warning for severe winter weather. The second week of March brings another Winter Storm warning to a large portion of the northern plains. With this type of repeat weather pattern, there is one thing that every city official should have in their emergency management playbook and that is a weather annex for snow and ice in their emergency operations plan.
In the past 10 years, Seattle (Wash.), Long Island (N.Y.), Atlanta (Ga.), and even entire states such as Pennsylvania have been affected by snow and ice storms that have paralyzed their cities. Some handled the response efforts better than others, but all received criticism from their citizens as well as outsiders. Every city, county, and state leader responsible for any aspect of emergency response functions should look at these 10 points to make sure they have addressed possible gaps in responding to an “unexpected” weather event:
- Develop a relationship with the city’s emergency manager. An inadequate local or federal response to a disaster can have a significantly negative impact on an administration. A good relationship with local emergency management is a powerful foundation for a strong response.
- Consider hiring a professional emergency manager if one is not already in place. A leading trend of 2014 is to professionalize the emergency manager position. Many of these managers have a professional degree in the field or, at a minimum, have practical experience in managing a disaster response.
- Have a worst-case scenario plan for the local area. Many emergency managers would consider snow and ice as their worst-case scenarios because the impact has surprised them in past years. Snow events have shut down the entire state of Pennsylvania in 2005, Seattle in 2008, Long Island in 2011, and Atlanta in 2009 and 2011.
- Pull the worst-case scenario plan “off the shelf” and exercise, exercise, exercise. Conduct a drill with all community and area partners. Develop a relationship with the private sector, schools, hospitals, and all levels of government and have a way to communicate with them before, during, and after the storm. The emergency operations plan and snow and ice annex should include who will do what, at what time, with what resources, and by what authority – before, during, and immediately after an emergency. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is a good resource for updating the plan.
- Include all area partners in drills and in emergency responses – county, state, weather service, businesses, and schools. Public-private partnerships – especially in the planning for disasters – are critical and, during an event, should be represented in the emergency operations center or via teleconference, email, or phone. Communications should be two-way to help with situational awareness.
- Activate the emergency operations center early. Err on the side of being open and operational before the crisis occurs. In many cases, emergency operations centers open too late or not at all.
- Have situational awareness capability, andentify what the triggers would be to take action. In many cases, reporting comes from first responders, public works staff in the field, traffic cameras, and social media posts and photos.
- Empower response officials to have decision-making authority and ensure they have and know the trigger that indicates that they should take action. Be in contact with the emergency manager and find out what to expect and when.
- Communicate, communicate, communicate. Public information dissemination is critical for knowing how the citizens perceive a community’s response. The message needs to be congruent with what the public is seeing in news reports as well as their own observations. Use traditional and nontraditional media, including social media. Also, manage the expectations of the public.
- Learn from other communities’ responses. The ability to respond to a disaster effectively sometimes is reflective of the amount of experience an official has in actually managing a disaster. Try to learn from other communities’ mistakes through the review of after-action reports and independent review of their disaster responses.
It is rare that the media or the citizens will even know when city officials have done a stellar job of responding to a snow and/or ice incident. But when that response is inadequate, all attention will be on that community.
Crystal Kline is Oklahoma’s first female Master Exercise Practitioner (MEP). She has responded to numerous disasters, is an adjunct instructor at FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute (EMI), and has developed training curriculum for EMI and for Haiti’s first Community Emergency Response Team. She is the co-author of “Disaster Preparedness: A Living Free Guide.” She lives in Tulsa, Okla., where she has worked for many years to make Tulsa a disaster-resistant community.
Kim Fuller is a former spokesperson for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and is an emergency management media relations consultant. She has been on the team that conducted the independent reviews of a number of snow and ice incidents across the United States. She is the co-developer of a line of disaster safety applications including FindMeTornado, which has a web-based monitoring feature.