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Important for communities to prepare for disasters

Disasters can strike without warning and can be devastating to small communities. It is especially important for small towns and rural communities to plan and prepare early. After the storm hits is too late to be ready. Early planning means small towns with their limited resources will be better prepared to protect citizens' property and save lives.

Torandoes strike Tuscloosa, AL in 2011
AP / The Tuscaloosa News

Many of our smaller towns and villages have limited staffs and to properly put an emergency management plan together can be a daunting task. But that is all the more reason to have it done. If an ice storm, major flood, train derailment, chemical spill or other disaster were to occur tomorrow the community will have to respond with the staff they have today.

The initial response is critical in an emergency, and it is at the community level that initial response takes place. So it is the community that has to prepare the emergency plan and execute it.

The resources usually available to the local government include their town highway or public works department with some heavy equipment and local fire departments who are often volunteers. The community's first responders can be effective in responding to disasters, but there will be much required of the local government to be effective in managing the crisis.

How and when to officially declare a state of emergency, how to efficiently request additional resources from the county and state governments, when and how to request public assistance from FEMA, how to manage civilian evacuations and sheltering and even how to keep the local government functioning at all are just some of the issues that will have to be addressed.

The reason for having an emergency plan is simple - to save lives and protect property. No community can predict and be prepared for every eventuality, but the goal is the minimize the impact on our citizens when a disaster strikes. Emergencies can strike without any warning, such as a natural gas explosion or chemical spill. Other emergencies occur more slowly like a hurricane. Having a plan helps the town be and stay ready.

Some of the other planning considerations include:

  • Does your community have an emergency management plan and is it synchronized with the county or state plan?
  • Is the staff trained in the Incident Command System (ICS) or National Incident Management System (NIMS)?
  • Has your community conducted an analysis of their risks and hazards?
  • Does your community have a plan to transition from everyday functions to running an Incident Command Post (ICP) or Emergency Operations Center (EOC)?
  • How would your town manage a multi-day event with the staff on hand?
  • If the town's staff couldn't operate from their normal facilities, where would they go?
  • Has your community identified their special needs populations and how would they be evacuated? Where would they go?
  • Who would be in charge and make decisions? Who would relieve that person so response operations can run day and night if necessary?
  • How would your local government keep the public informed?

This is just a small sample of the many planning considerations that should be addressed long before the disaster strikes.

As this long and exceptionally cold winter has demonstrated, we cannot control the weather. We've experienced ice storms, blizzards, power outages and temperatures dropping to 30, 40 below zero or even colder. But, we can take steps now to be better prepared when severe weather strikes.

And when that happens, it will be up to your local jurisdiction to respond to, manage and recover from the crisis and guide the community to return to normal as quickly as possible.