Beyond the Norm: Emergency Shelters Help in Extraordinary Circumstances

Top officials from the Maryland Emergency Management Agency meet with the Director of Homeless Services at the Department of Human Resources to determine ways the agencies can work together to support local cold weather homeless sheltering efforts. The meeting was initiated by MACo.

The Back Story

Following legislation introduced in the Maryland General Assembly’s 2016 Session, MACo has been working with its emergency management affiliate, the Maryland Association of County Emergency Managers and the Department of Human Resources to address concerns regarding homeless sheltering during cold weather.

At the affiliate’s Spring meeting, the Maryland Association of County Emergency Managers hosted Heather Sheridan, Director of Homeless Services at the Department of Human Resources, to discuss the topic of homeless sheltering during cold weather. Several emergency managers provided feedback to Director Sheridan on county efforts currently taking place.

Emergency Managers discussed the topic at its meeting at MACo’s Summer Conference and again at MEMA’s quarterly meeting of local emergency managers. Also over the summer, a focus group of emergency managers participated in a conference call with partners from local departments of social services to share best practices and identify gaps and needs.

This September, the Maryland Association of County Emergency Managers provided additional information on the emergency management role in local government and the variety of ways that local governments support sheltering during extreme cold and winter weather. This information included a summary of the local role in sheltering, specific information about cold weather sheltering from County Emergency Managers in sample large metropolitan, mid-size, and small rural counties, and enclosures of local emergency plans.

From the summary,

Every Maryland county has an office of emergency management, but the size and capabilities of these offices varies widely. Some county offices of emergency management have as few as two employees and limited resources. No matter the size of the office, however, in each county, the responsibilities of emergency management including planning and coordination of emergency response to major disasters, those rare events that pose a threat to many citizens’ life safety.

Daily year-round sheltering and other services for the homeless are provided by different governmental agencies or departments in each county, typically health, social service or human service agencies, as well as an array of private, non-profit or other partners. During a declared cold weather emergency, if gaps in shelter capacity are identified, emergency managers will work with partners to identify and activate additional available sheltering resources to accommodate the expanded need. In all emergency responses, special deference is provided to vulnerable populations, including the homeless.

Collaborative Efforts

This week, MACo’s Research Director, Director Sheridan and the Executive Director and leadership staff of the Maryland Emergency Management Agency met at MEMA’s headquarters in Reisterstown. The meeting was initiated by MACo and Director Strickland offered his conference room and pulled in several key positions from his agency to focus on the topic. During the meeting, several opportunities for collaboration between DHR and MEMA were identified and commitments were made to continue work that will bring support and best practices to local jurisdictions seeking to improve their homeless sheltering capabilities.

MEMA Executive Director Russ Strickland led the conversation to define the emergency management role. Director Strickland is former director of the Harford County Department of Emergency Services and has over four decades of experience in the fields of emergency services and management, first responder activities, law enforcement, and fire inspection and investigation.

In defining the moment that triggers emergency sheltering, Strickland asked Director Sheridan to describe the norm of day-to-day homeless sheltering through the state, and whether all homeless were accommodated by current non-emergency sheltering capacities. Strickland said,

MEMA Director Strickland
MEMA Director Strickland helps to clarify the emergency management role.

“Emergency management steps in when capabilities are exceeded and the standard or norm cannot be met.”

Next Steps

MEMA and DHR will continue to work together to identify best practices and opportunities to strengthen preparedness for winter weather throughout the state, using lessons learned from the Agency’s recent coordination work in Carroll County.

In December, MACo’s human services, aging, and emergency manager affiliates will co-sponsor an educational session on homeless sheltering at the MACo Winter Conference. MACo has also extended an invitation to the Interagency Council on Homelessness to hold one of its meetings at the conference via Director Sheridan. The Conference will be held in Cambridge, Maryland December 7-9, 2016 and the theme of the Conference is An Ounce of Prevention. Find more information about the conference and register on MACo’s website.