How Prepared is America for Natural Disaster? -Not Very

I need to point out from the start that I served as an emergency management coordinator or assistant EMC for about 15 years and this is my view of how poorly we are prepared.

When I was involved (I resigned after 9/11 for reasons I will explain) emergency management was a state-by-state business and Pennsylvania was one of the most well-prepared states.

Coordinators met regularly for training at the county operations center. This training included a minimal amount of hazardous materials training (local fire departments have specialists), how to evaluate and report the extent of disasters, and generally the sort of information needed to coordinate local resources to avoid duplication of effort as well as inform first responders and police of local evacuation and emergency shelter plans.

natural disaster

In addition I had special training in measurement and decontamination procedures related to radioactive materials leaks, and illegal dumping, so I was issued Geiger counters (useful) along with dosimeters which measure cumulative radiation exposure – these were less than useful since the minimum recorded level was already fatal.

I was a Certified Radiologic Monitor for the Commonwealth and so were another 10 or so individuals in my class and others around the state. Having majored in physics at college I would rate the training as perfectly adequate.

That all sounds great, especially since we had manuals, and municipality-specific resource and evacuation plans we updated every year. We also had correspondence courses to improve our skills.

That said, in 15 years I responded to two events because they occurred within 600 feet of my home. I spoke with the press, notified authorities, and generally helped out and did my job to everyone’s satisfaction keeping the press out of the first responders’ way. I tried to respond to two other local events (one was a major flood) and couldn’t get past the volunteer fire police.

I responded to one possible hazardous materials spill which turned out not to involve radioactive materials – something you simply don’t know unless you have a Geiger counter.

That may all sound as if we had few emergencies, but actually we did. I either couldn’t get to the locations or didn’t learn of them until a day later.

What was the problem?

Emergency management coordinators had:

  • No right to cross police lines
  • No special identification for their vehicles to get through roadblocks, just a tiny signature card that looked fake
  • No authorization to use emergency vehicle lights on our cars
  • No pager to notify us of events we should respond to and no procedure to notify us if we bought our own pager
  • No procedure to notify us of local disasters by telephone or cell phone
  • No radios with emergency responder frequencies except any scanner each individual happened to buy at Radio Shack

    And, along with no way to actually speak to emergency responders, we had no authority to give any suggestions or information to anyone in the first responders.

    That’s correct; unless an emergency management coordinator actually saw an event they should respond to, we never knew about them until they hit the news and not then if we weren’t sitting at a TV.

    Coordinators don’t tell first responders what to do since we didn’t have that sort of training, but we were supposed to identify and “coordinate” resources – we had the training to do that and free up fire chiefs from that job so they could concentrate on the fire or rescue.

    I’ll let you decide for yourself just how useful the position was. And, remember, in the 1990s Pennsylvania was one of the better organized states.

    I expected some change after 9/11 when a big bundle of money was appropriated for emergency management.

    What we needed most was radios so we could coordinate, beepers to notify us of events, and some sort of window placard to identify us to police. (This wasn’t a question of money, many of us were perfectly willing to buy our own equipment, but we had no authorization.)

    What we got was a change to the 100-page form we had to file every year to report that all the resources (such as schools for evacuation) we had last year were still there.

    The change meant we couldn’t just copy the previous year’s form – all EMCs had to completely re-write the local plan, putting the same information in different places on the new forms.

    Also, a year or two earlier the Radiologic Monitor program was disbanded – I hadn’t been informed, I just happened to hear about it. I could see that in rural areas this whole operation was nothing more than a joke or a way to support a few paid officials on federal money so I resigned.

    Oh yes, one of the paid county coordinators in another area was also a local fire chief until he was convicted of arson.

    I am still a member of the FEMA sponsored “Citizen Corps” that provides ongoing training for individuals beyond first responders who are willing to organize local groups to assist in disasters.

    There is no local group in this area.

    There is also a national citizen volunteer program to assist police forces with administrative details such as filing.

    VIPS (Volunteers in Police Service)

    There is no police force within 100 miles of me which participates.

    I know that some cities have good emergency management systems. I doubt the coordinators have any real input on things such as building codes or refusing permits to people who want to build homes below sea level, next to flood-prone rivers, and such.

    You should check out the situation in your community since it will vary in every area.

    But the experience I had with rural emergency management showed me it was mostly a waste at best and a joke at worst.

    Each municipality in Pennsylvania is required to have an emergency management coordinator and an individual emergency management plan – they aren’t required to give the coordinator any communications tools or identification so they could actually coordinate anything.