A sales tax to fund emergency management could be a lifesaver if disaster strikes [Columbia Daily Tribune (MO)]
(Columbia Daily Tribune (MO) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) If a tornado such as the massive one that hit Joplin nearly two years ago twisted through downtown Columbia, coordinating an immediate response might be a disaster in itself, public-safety officials say.
No community can be prepared for such devastation, but preparedness for disaster in Boone County needs to improve, said Scott Olsen, interim director of emergency management.
PHOTO: The Columbia/Boone County Emergency Operation C... more [+]
Planning and training have fallen short, said Olsen, who also is chief of the Boone County Fire Protection District, and the county doesn't have an emergency operations center that could withstand an EF-5 tornado.
Emergency preparation can't redirect a storm or slow rising floodwaters, but it can save lives and property.
"A disaster scene is not where you want to exchange business cards," said Keith Stammer, Joplin/Jasper County Emergency Management director.
In part to improve preparation for such emergency events, Boone County is asking voters April 2 to approve a new three-eighths-cent sales tax to fund the Office of Emergency Management and Columbia- Boone County Joint Communications, or 911.
The permanent sales tax would transfer the two city departments to county government and support an annual expenditure of $8.66 million to operate them.
Currently, the 13 public-safety agencies in Boone County that use 911 services contribute to the operation's $2.7 million budget. An additional $218,000 funds Emergency Management operations. The sales tax proposal combines those operations and funds a $6.4 million operating budget.
"Joint Communications and Emergency Management are really linked," Olsen said. "That's where we get our intelligence. It's where you find out what's going on."
In addition, Proposition 1 would support bond financing for the construction of a 20,000-square-foot facility designed to withstand an EF-5 tornado, plus new radio equipment, hardware and software, and nearly double the number of employees for both departments. Financing will require an additional $2.2 million annually to retire a $20 million bond debt over the next 20 years.
As a sales tax proposal, Proposition 1 faces potential criticism from those who don't want to see any tax hike and others who call the increase unfair to low-income families. Grass Roots Organizing spokeswoman Mary Hussmann said her organization opposes all sales taxes, although she admitted GRO was mostly silent last year when voters approved the Boone County Children's Fund sales tax because members "can't always mount a campaign."
"This proposal is another example of a lack of a fair and balanced approach," Hussmann said. "We know it will have an effect on the disabled, working class and elderly."
Food and medicine should never be taxed, she said, and GRO members also believe the county is overreaching in its request for a new facility, equipment and more staff.
"All we are asking is for voters to take a second look at this," Hussmann said.
COORDINATING A RESPONSE
The Emergency Management operation would occupy the top story of a planned 20,000-square-foot, two-floor facility to be built north of Columbia on the campus of the Boone County Sheriff's Department. The building will include accommodations experts say are needed for a multi-day disaster, including an emergency operations center, or EOC.
Such accommodations would include a sleeping room with cots where 911 operators and public officials could rest without leaving the facility during a crisis, Olsen said. Showers, a kitchen, office space for six staffers and an exercise room are planned, as well.
"People who can make decisions need to be at the EOC," Olsen said regarding disasters. "Key players have to be there. It's a grouping of people needed to coordinate the response of an event."
Olsen said the exercise room is necessary because it gives personnel a needed healthy diversion from the stress of an emergency response. Having people work intense 12-hour shifts and then not leave the building is a lot to ask, he said. Elected officials and city and county department heads would gather at the EOC to keep government services running and coordinate emergency responses. From there, they can communicate with the Missouri State Emergency Management Agency, where state officials will gather.
"The last building that needs to be standing is Joint Communications and Emergency Management," said Boone County Sheriff Dwayne Carey, who has been instrumental in the 911 sales tax proposal.
The possibility that the EOC would be activated varies by event, Olsen said. Events that could result in activation include snow and ice storms, tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, evacuation for a nuclear incident, terrorist attacks, drought or mass shootings. EOCs are prevalent in Gulf Coast communities where tropical storms require mass evacuations.
Full activations occurred during Missouri River flooding in 1993, 1995 and 2007. Partial activations happened with a 2011 blizzard, as well as several other snow and flooding events over the past 20 years, Olsen said.
"We never had an adequate place to do business or the tools to do the job. People were uncomfortable with it, so we chose more often not to activate" the EOC, Olsen said.
The snowstorms Boone County saw last month nearly triggered an EOC activation, but Public Works officials thought they could better coordinate responses from their own facilities. Frequent conference calls among public works staff and other officials coordinated efforts in those cases, said Olsen, who worked during the snow events from the current 911 center in the Columbia Police Department with those taking reports of traffic and power issues.
The EOC's mission is to share resources and coordinate responses, Olsen said, so it must be located in a sturdy structure where people with the authority to coordinate resources can gather. He cited a situation when flatbeds were needed to haul sandbags to Rocheport during the Flood of '93, and quick action resulted from having such people gathered.
"We looked around and asked, 'Who has flatbeds ' " he recalled. "The city's Parks and Recreation Department said yes. It was an instant solution, not a 'I'll call my boss and see.' "
Before Olsen took over Emergency Management, the city's EOC was in the basement of the city Armory on Ash Street. In the event of a disaster now, the EOC would be activated at the fire district, 2201 Interstate 70 Drive N.W.
Carey was critical of the space at the Armory. Getting the EOC operational could take as long as three hours, with wiring and equipment setup needed to enable communications, Carey said. Most concerning, he said, is that certain antennas can't be attached to the Armory's facade or roof because it is considered a historic building.
"It doubles as a day care," he said of the space, which the EOC shared with city Parks and Recreation Department programs. "What if there was an immediate activation and you couldn't send those kids home You'd be stuck with them."
The EOC operations room measures about 440 square feet. Showers, storage areas and a sleeping room total 5,465 square feet for Emergency Management, but all that space at the Armory is shared with city Parks and Rec.
In the proposed new facility, the EOC operations room will total about 2,700 square feet and would be ready for response from the moment officials arrive, Carey said.
The Joplin/Jasper County Office of Emergency Management had two employees before the May 2011 EF-5 tornado that caused $2.8 billion in damage and about 160 deaths.
Although they were overwhelmed at the time by the destruction, Stammer said, residents and government officials today are satisfied with Emergency Management's staff size and have made no additions.
For a county its size, Jasper County residents could consider themselves fortunate to have two full-time employees devoted to planning for emergency responses. Neighboring rural counties rely on fire chiefs, sheriffs or deputies to coordinate emergency management.
Boone County does not have any full-time emergency management personnel. Instead, grant funding is divided among Olsen and five fire district staffers who perform specific duties for emergency management part time. Grant funding has always been the lone source of funding for emergency management personnel.
Jasper County had 117,404 residents in the 2010 Census; Boone had 162,642.
Olsen said in Boone County, the presence of a major university and the proximity of the Missouri River and a nuclear reactor make preparedness more complex.
"You can't really be prepared for everything," Stammer said. "In the world of Emergency Management, you list the things that can happen, then rank them most likely to least likely, greatest impact to smallest impact."
Olsen and fire district recruiter Josh Creamer met with Missouri's new SEMA director, Ryan Nicholls, and then outlined the need for six full-time Emergency Management positions: a director, deputy director and four specialists.
Olsen said he has no plans of applying to be director. "No way," he said.
A federal grant now funds some personnel costs associated with emergency management. Until recently, the 911 center director was also responsible for overseeing emergency management, and the grant money paid a portion of that salary. The city and county governments matched the $109,001 federal grant in 2012, for a total emergency management budget of $218,002, Olsen said.
Under the sales tax, emergency management's staff would grow to an estimated $515,000 annual budget. The department would continue to apply for federal funding.
Beyond the director and deputy director, the approval of Proposition 1 would add these four positions:
* An administrative/grants manager would provide clerical services, Creamer said. Applying for federal grants is time- consuming but can pay off financially. Some emergency management departments, such as the one in Springfield-Greene County, have received significant amounts of grant funding that allow them to fund a portion of their facilities.
This staffer also would complete reimbursement paperwork for federal disaster declarations, among other record-keeping duties, Creamer said.
* A planning/GIS specialist would provide an annual review of the state-required Emergency Operations Plan. Boone County's plan, which shows the state that local officials are thinking annually about how to improve services during times of disaster, had not been updated in two years, when Olsen's fire district staff began its annual review, he said. The document was filled with Post-its and pages of notes.
"It was three times this thick," Olsen said of the now-402-page document, "and filled with notes from stakeholders." The revised plan will soon be accessible on the city's website.
With the new planning/GIS specialist position, Creamer said, Boone County could expand its planning capabilities into other valuable areas of emergency response. Having plans for dealing with debris and coordinating volunteers and donations, for example, can expedite disaster recoveries.
The mapping component of the job is a natural fit, Olsen said. Natural resources and topography must be considered in any emergency planning. Sophisticated mapping technology can detail property information as well.
"If the river rises 2 feet, GIS tells me how it affects property owners," Olsen said.
Damage estimates to properties also can be logged to determine the cost of disasters for reimbursement.
* A preparedness specialist/public information officer position will bear education and public awareness responsibilities, Creamer said.
Social media is the latest avenue for agencies like Emergency Management to educate residents on emergency topics. Education begins by sharing information with the public and explaining how it affects them, but such messages can't be sporadic, Olsen said.
"I do social media for the fire district," Creamer said. "Social media takes a lot of time, but you can get a lot of value out of it. You can't just update and not do anything for a month. People won't come back."
Communication with news outlets also is imperative during emergencies. Information about the response to the recent snowstorms was issued with news organizations' deadlines in mind, Olsen said, something that hadn't been done in the past.
* A training/exercise specialist might be the most important need for better preparedness, Olsen said.
It has been several years since elected and department officials traveled to the National Emergency Training Center in Emmitsburg, Md., for small- and large-scale tornado scenario training, Olsen said. Columbia and Boone County officials in past years would participate in training as staff turnover required it, but few of those same people remain in office.
"Think about it. We have a new city manager, police chief, fire chief" and county "presiding commissioner," Olsen said. "Who keeps them up to date
"Someone needs to go to Janet Thompson to tell her what her responsibilities are in the event of a disaster," he added, referring to the newest member of the Boone County Commission. That didn't happen, he said.
Some emergency planning takes place locally, but it's not coordinated to include all necessary agencies, Olsen said. A training specialist would bring them together to better coordinate response and recovery, he said.
All four specialists would report to the deputy director of emergency management, Creamer said. The deputy director's main responsibility will be to manage the staff so their plans can be implemented in case of a disaster.
The Emergency Management director will hold budget responsibilities, report to the county commission, approve all plans and tasks, and coordinate emergency responses.
[copyright] 2013 Columbia Daily Tribune . All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
This article was published in the Sunday, March 17, 2013 edition of The Columbia Daily Tribune with the headline "RESPONSE TIME: Officials say adding a sales tax to fund emergency management could be a lifesaver if disaster strikes."
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