p Executive briefing on current emerging issues in emergency management to brief a local executive
Executive briefing of emerging issues in emergency management:
Capabilities, vulnerabilities, and needs for Omaha, Nebraska
Omaha, Nebraska is subject to the specific geographic and meteorological conditions to its region that give it a unique profile for emergency managers. Unlike the major coastal cities of Los Angeles and New York, for example, it is not identified as a high-priority target for potential terrorists because of its cultural significance. But although it is not proximate to a national border, Homeland Security issues are still of great importance as reflected in the recent rebuilding of its Homeland Security office to LEED (environmentally sustainable) standards. This ensures that the building can be energy-efficient and can answer the needs of the community in the future (Omaha Department of Homeland Security, 2008, CBE Berkeley).
Regarding natural disasters common to Omaha, it has been noted that "the chance of earthquake damage in Omaha is about the same as Nebraska average and is much lower than the national average," however, "the risk of tornado damage in Omaha is higher than Nebraska average and is much higher than the national average" due to the area's very flat and unprotected topography (Omaha, NE natural disasters and weather extremes, 2013, USA.com). More must be done in the future to mitigate the risk of damage from tornados in terms of planning and construction. Furthermore, the hot, dry weather makes the area prone to extremes of heat, drought, and fires (Omaha, NE natural disasters and weather extremes, 2013, USA.com). Thunderstorms, flooding rains, wind and hail are other possible extreme weather events, with snow and extreme cold snaps being relatively unlikely (Omaha, NE natural disasters and weather extremes, 2013, USA.com).
Although not currently part of its official disaster response effort, instituting greater fire mitigation practices and policies has been suggested for states subject to wildfires nation-wide. For example, "some states, such as Florida, provide funding for mitigation projects through competitive grants that are available to city, county, and state agencies" and have a state-wide 'Firewise' policy to reduce such risks (Halstead 2013). Incorporating 'Firewise' policies might be an important component of future natural disaster planning given the recorded risks of high winds and dry conditions in NE. Ultimately, this can reduce overall costs on both a state and federal level as mitigation and preparedness is always preferable to dealing with an actual incident.
Another issue of particular concern regarding the safety of the region is the Keystone XL oil pipeline running through Omaha. As a result of this unique threat, "local response agencies provide general hazardous materials training for their members. In addition, local departments have the authority to call one of the 10 hazardous materials teams stationed across Nebraska. The teams have specialized equipment and training to deal with hazardous spills" (Duggan 2013). The private operators of such pipelines are required by law to have emergency response capabilities and thus both state and private emergency teams must be able to work together, in the face of a pipeline disaster.
Philosophy of disaster management
In Omaha, emergency management is viewed as most effective when it is part of a joint effort. Within the region, the three counties of Douglas, Sarpy and Washington in the Omaha metropolitan area have taken a regional approach to disaster management. "Historically, the three counties have recognized the importance of cooperating with and supporting the cities and rural residents within their respective geographic boundaries" (Emergency Management & Homeland Security, 2013, Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency). Coordinated efforts are intended to improve rather than to spread resources thin in terms of emergency management and working together is fostered by combined "Memorandums of Understanding, Inter-local Agreements and informal partnerships among the stakeholders. Various functional committees have been established to provide comprehensive planning and oversight as well as consistency and continuity for different aspects of Emergency Management and Homeland Security" (Emergency Management & Homeland Security, 2013, Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency). When engaging in disaster planning exercises, given this combined impetus, it is necessary that the chains of communication are kept open between all of these various arms of critical response and that the agencies already know how to work together even before a disaster strikes.
Responses to disasters, regardless of source, are also joint efforts between various agencies: while "first responders will provide the initial tactical response to a disaster" using the National Incident Management System," the incident commander will be determined by the nature of the disaster (Douglas County, NE local emergency operations plan, 2010, Nebraska.gov: 135). Given that few disasters affect one simple facet of the county, such coordination seems wise although it necessitates communication channels remain open between all agencies expected to be part of a first response. The method of selecting who is 'in charge' of different critical efforts which arise spontaneously must also become a part of future planning initiatives. DCEMA Activation Levels are used to 'rate' the risks of serious threats on a scale of 1-4 and to determine if outside assistance -- and what kind of assistance is required (Douglas County, NE local emergency operations plan, 2010, Nebraska.gov: 56).
Basic disaster planning
During a 'routine' disaster, the city relies upon a combination of sirens and social media warnings to alert the public. According to the official emergency operating plan manual, when there is an alert, the county will begin "notification of those on their emergency notification list. The public may have already been warned by sirens or through the electronic media. If there are no automated warnings" then the county "will sound the sirens as authorized" (Douglas County, NE local emergency operations plan, 2010, Nebraska.gov: 100). On the website, the county announces when such warnings will be sounded as part of a routine testing program for the sirens and are to be expected. For example, on the current website devoted to public notifications, it is announced that "the Douglas County Emergency Management Agency will begin testing of the Outdoor Warning Siren System for 2013 starting this month" (Siren testing for 2013, 2013, Douglas County).
Sirens have a few obvious 'pros' in terms of their uses are warning systems. First and foremost, they can be sounded over a wide geographic area, to everyone in earshot. Unlike notifications through television or radio, they are far less likely to be inhibited by failed connections. As witnessed after the September 11th attacks in New York City, there were major disruptions to radio, news, cellular phone, and other services. When Superstorm Sandy hit the Mid-Atlantic States, this area was left almost entirely without power, which inhibited communications. Even if citizens are warned to have backup plans like battery-powered radios to alert them when other forms of communication sources are lost, in the event of a surprise attack, not every person can be expected to be prepared.
Another 'pro' in favor of relying upon sirens is the fact that tourism is an increasingly important part of the NE economy. Tourists are unlikely to be logged into NE-specific social media sites that give details about emergency preparations. However, there are some notable drawbacks in using sirens. First of all, the need for routine testing can actually foster public complacency, since it may be assumed if the sirens sound their warning that it is 'just a test.' Few members of the public regularly log onto the emergency website to learn when testing is or is not taking place, except in the event of an anticipated natural disaster. Secondly, sirens may not be able to be heard by certain members of the community, such as the hard of hearing. And thirdly and perhaps most importantly, sirens do not provide specific information about the type of disaster and what the public should do.
Social media sources ultimately offer a wider range of far more specific and informative details in the event of an emergency and polls indicate that there is a high level of expectation in terms of the use of social media by emergency-related agencies by the public. Social media is accepted by a larger percentage of the public as a critical component of all warning systems. A survey by the American Red Cross indicated that sixty-nine percent of the adults surveyed believed that emergency response agencies needed to monitor social media sources like Facebook and Twitter for request for assistance (Yasin 2010). Encouraging residents and also travelers to the region to be 'friends' with the county's emergency-related agencies on Facebook and to 'follow' them on Twitter for high-priority alerts is the best and most comprehensive and specific way to keep the public informed. However, the public must also be aware that mobile devices may or may not work well during a disaster.
The coordinated and comprehensive nature of Omaha's current emergency response service speaks well of its ability to respond to a number of general disasters, although certain components of its plan such as its ability to inform residents and tourists of needed actions…