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Central Ohio IFMA Chapter Members Get a Peek into Emergency Operations

     What is Hoover Dam were to spring a leak? Who would respond, and when?

     What if an EF-5 tornado touched down in Franklin County, traveling along a 13-mile path through downtown Columbus and past the John Glenn Columbus International Airport, leaving a wide path of destruction and death? Who would respond and when?

     Those were two disaster-based scenarios Central Ohio IFMA Chapter members examined during their August 17 tour of the Franklin County Emergency Management and Homeland Security Headquarters and Joint Emergency Operations Center. While the county agency would not be the first to respond to either scenario, they would be behind the scenes coordinating efforts to deal with the disaster.

   “Responses are local,” said Deputy Director Darrel Koerber. “But I want to make it very clear. We don’t command incidents. We are here to coordinate and support those incidents commanders that are working out in the field. They are the boots on the ground. We support them.”

     In any given incident, the Emergency Management team could be coordinating county agencies such as COTA, MORPSE, Columbus Hazardous Materials Response Teams, the Red Cross, fire and police responders, AEP, John Glenn Columbus International Airport representatives, and more.

     “Communication is key,” Koerber told some two dozen Central Ohio IFMA Chapter members in attendance. So coordinating efforts and communicating in close proximity is exactly what happens inside the Joint Operations Center.

     The agency is governed by Ohio Revised Code which mandates a county-wide emergency management agency to address a number of different safety functions. The agency is responsible for all public alerting and warning systems – indoor, outdoor and as messages to phones and other smart media. It is tasked with managing public information and educational efforts as they relate to disaster preparedness and response. Third, they are tasked with coordinating short and long-term disaster recovery and support efforts over 42 different jurisdictions in Franklin County (which includes some 1.3 million people). Finally, the team identifies, organizes, and coordinates resource management and logistical responses in Franklin County (i.e. water, generators, etc.).

     In addition, Franklin County Emergency Management and Homeland Security coordinates all hazards incident responses, manages emergency management and homeland security funding, coordinates and manages 62 local plans (recovery, debris management, natural hazards mitigation, etc.), and coordinates training exercises county-wide with first responders, volunteers, and emergency partners.

     So what does the team prepare for? Franklin County Emergency Management & Homeland Security maintains a risk assessment for Franklin County detailing the risks local residents face. Below are the top 19 risks from a 2016 Risk Assessment:

1. Tornadoes

2. Cyber Threat

3. Infectious Disease

4. Flooding

5. Lone Wolf Terrorist Incident

6. Dam Failure

7. Utility/Energy Interruption or Failure

8. CBRNE Terrorist Incident

9. Severe Winter Weather

10. Hazardous Materials Incident

11. Civil Disturbance

12. Severe Summer Weather

13. Transportation Accident – Aircraft

14. Space Weather

15. Extreme Weather

16. Earthquake

17. Invasive Species

18. Air & Water Pollution /Contamination

19. Drought

 

     Once an event has occurred, the usually quiet Joint Emergency Operations Center is quickly staffed by Emergency Management personnel (approximately 10 employees), along with representatives from the various response and support agencies from throughout Franklin County (up to approximately 45 personnel). The group first devises a plan and considers logistics, then quickly moves to the operational phase.

     The entire process could take as little as a half an hour, said Jeffrey Young, Director. When time is key, responses need to be quick, yet well-thought and coordinated.  

     Following an overview of the agency and the examination of two scenarios, agency staff gave a brief overview of some of the specific programs managed by the agency, like ALERT which is a state-of-the-art mass notification and warning system designed to warn residents about emergencies and other important news. ALERT uses text, e-mail, home phone, cell phone or work phone messaging and can be sent to every resident in a matter of moments. The system is customizable, allowing users to choose what kind of community notifications they will receive – and how. (For more information or to sign up, visit www.alertfranklincounty.org.)

     Central Ohio IFMA Chapter members finished up their morning with a tour of the Joint Operations Center itself, where large screen projection systems, televisions, maps, and a bank of computers monitor weather, news, and other media outlets throughout the country. At a moment’s notice, it can transform into a bustling planning and operations center, coordinating disaster support and relief.

     While civil defense may date back hundreds of years with moats and foot patrols to monitor against tragedy, the idea of being prepared is still relevant today. The term Civil Defense – or civilian defense – was first coined during WWI, our nation’s first total war. Building troop morale and supporting the fight through Liberty Bonds, were this country’s first real efforts that later paled in comparison to WWII’s initiatives. The Civil Defense Corps, run by the Office of Civil Defense, organized approximately 10 million volunteers during the second World War, who trained to fight fires, decontaminate after chemical weapon attacks, provide first aid, and more.

   Since the end of the Cold War, civil defense, as we knew it, had fallen into disuse within the United States. Gradually, the focus on nuclear war shifted to an "all-hazards" approach of Comprehensive Emergency Management. Natural disasters and the emergence of new threats such as terrorism have caused attention to be focused away from traditional civil defense and into new forms of civil protection such as emergency management and homeland security.

     “Up until these past three months or so, the nuclear war-type aspect had really fallen off the radar,” said Young. But with recent threats from North Korea, responses are shifting once again.

     One things is for sure when it comes to emergency management – nothing ever stays the same.