Emergency Exercise Expands Breadth of County Experience at MACo Conference

Experts and audience members share notes in a special emergency exercise to test county preparedness at MACo Winter Conference.

County elected officials and their staff participate in an emergency exercise at the MACo Winter Conference.

A new feature at MACo’s Winter Conference exercised county elected officials and their staff on the roles of state and local government officials when activating the local emergency operation center and opening an emergency shelter for residents.

County and state emergency management directors led a “tabletop” exercise designed by the University of Maryland Center for Health and Homeland Security. Fifty conference attendees participated in the early morning session on Friday, the last day of the conference.

MEMA Executive Director Russ Strickland began with a description of what an emergency operations center is, and what it is not. He described the center, which is also known as an EOC, as a place to coordinate and communicate prior, during, and following an emergency event. He shared some of the State EOC’s protocols, including their timeline for preparing for a hurricane event, which begins a week before predicted weather affects our region.

Describing the State’s preparations for a weather event, Strickland noted the constant communications with locals and national weather service. One component of preparations is the decision to evacuate, which needs to be made three to four days before hurricane landfall.

Cecil County Emergency Services Director Richard Brooks said that for local emergency management,

A hurricane coming is no surprise. Whenever there is a named storm in the Atlantic, we are on it. Our minds are engaged, our workload begins well before the first weather briefing.

County activities prior to a hurricane include coordination with sister counties, completing the all-hazards checklist, fueling up emergency vehicles, and meeting for a briefing in the emergency operations center.

Brooks emphasized the intensity of decision-making prior to a storm and the need to communicate the urgency of the situation in advance of the storm arriving. He said,

You don’t say, ‘Ladies and gentleman, please rise from your tables at Phillips restaurant and start heading towards the Delaware shore.’

Steve Price, Worcester County Public Schools described his work to prepare education community and provide them with a familiarity with the incident command system that is used to manage incidents in an emergency operations setting.

If you have people in your community who think tide is just a laundry detergent, you need to educate them.

April Sharp of Talbot County’s Department of Social Services shared the value of partnership with social services and other agencies to educate and prepare the community for an emergency. Sharp noted the goal of helping residents make an emergency plan that relieves them from needing to go to a shelter.

Participants in the exercise also had anecdotes and insights to share with the group throughout the emergency exercise:

  • Frederick County Council Member Jennifer Fitzwater asked the panelists for specific insight into the role of an elected official during emergency response.
  • Charles County Administrator Mike Mallinoff, former City Manager for the City of Annapolis, noted the need to prioritize the safety of elected officials over their interest in coming in to the EOC.
  • Mary Hastler of Harford County Public Library offered the libraries as a resource in sharing emergency preparedness information with the community.

In response, Director Brooks agreed that the most effective place for an elected official during a response is working from his or her district. He shared the need for elected officials to help emergency management provide accurate updates to residents during an emergency. He suggested elected officials work with their local emergency managers in advance of an event to make sure that they will be sending updates directly to them during the response.

All panelists encouraged additional preparedness among county government officials and the general public and welcomed partnership with fellow government agencies to reach that goal.