A Fire/HazMat Point of View By Brian Geraci 

Over the last several years a number of dramatic changes have occurred in Montgomery County, Md. – where I live and work – and in other local and state emergency-management agencies that conduct emergency and/or disaster planning. These changes are a result of disastrous incidents both within the United States and in other countries around the world – tragedies that have changed the way local and state jurisdictions plan and respond to an all-hazards approach in the management of major disasters. Other changes have resulted from programs and directives mandated by the federal government and by state and local jurisdictions; many of the latter changes are tied to the allocation of federal grants; decision makers in cities and towns throughout the country know that if they want to apply for federal grants they will have to comply with the federal guidelines established to obtain that funding. This is particularly true in implementation of programs related to the National Incident Management System (NIMS), the specifics of which are spelled out in Homeland Security Presidential Directive (HSPD) #5. All states and jurisdictions must have personnel in all departments – even though those personnel may not be first responders in the true sense – who have been trained in accordance with the NIMS guidelines and who would or may respond to assist at an incident. Many private-sector safety organizations also are trying to adhere to the NIMS guidelines and to have trained personnel in place by the deadlines set by the federal government. Some Much-Needed Revisions There are, in fact, 12 HSPDs, covering a broad range of topics and programs, and a number of other federal documents that have and will continue to have a significant effect on how states, cities, and other local jurisdiction plan for and respond to both natural and manmade disasters. HSPD 3, for example, which establishes the Homeland Security Advisory System, has had a major impact at the local level. At the start, the advisory system (Red and Orange Alerts, etc.) was confusing not only to the media and the public, but also to local jurisdictions seeking to comply with the directive. Public-safety agencies had to institute additional departmental procedures, for example, including plans for increased staffing, as well as operational plans that detail how those agencies would respond if and when the national-threat level is raised. Since then, the advisory system has been revised and modified to give it a somewhat narrower but also more useful focus – e.g., theentification of certain areas of the country and/or infrastructures that may have been threatened to the point that the threat level should be raised in those areas. Montgomery County, for example, has instituted a plan for Codes Orange and Red that is tested periodically. The plan includes procedures for the callback of personnel and the upgrading of communications systems and the county’s other preparedness systems and equipment. A Plethora of Plans – And an Increase in Workload The National Response Plan (NRP), various National Planning Scenarios, and the Target Capability List are prominent among the other federal documents that have had to be reviewed at the state and local levels. HSPD 5 covers all basic programs within the emergency-management system that are needed to prevent, prepare, respond to, and recover from all types of hazards; it alsoentifies ways to improve coordination in response to events. The need to comply with that directive has had a huge impact at the local level not only for public-safety agencies but for any agency or organization that may be involved in any way with the emergency-management measures mandated by the federal government. HSPD 8 (National Preparedness), which discusses preparations for all hazards, including activities that should be carried out during the early phases of a terrorism incident, defines All Hazards Preparedness as “preparedness for domestic attacks, major disasters, and other emergencies.” It also outlines, among other things: the federal preparedness assistance procedures available for all states; the specifications for and purchase of funding for equipment, training, and exercises; citizen-participation guidelines; public communications goals and guidelines; and periodic assessments and evaluations of the entire process and system. The three HSPDs mentioned above have had the greatest impact on local-level agencies – but all twelve have had at least some impact on local jurisdictions. Many cities and states have had to make changes to their previously developed emergency operation plans (EOPs), for example, to include NIMS language affecting those plans. Other federal directives have affected training and exercise planning and execution, the standard operating procedures previously developed, the equipment needed for response, the credentialing of personnel, the creation of citizen programs such as Community Emergency Response Teams (CERTs), and the purchase and use of surveillance and detection systems needed to counter biological attacks. A Continuous Chain of Changes All Montgomery County departments already have been affected in many ways by these and other federal directives, and continue to be affected. The county’s emergency operations plan, for example, now consists of the basic plan and more than over 30 annexes. County officials have been working on changes to the original plan for almost a year, but a new problem has developed: Once we reach a certain point, additional changes frequently are needed because of the reactions to documents previously revised and/or the impact of other events. In short, the work is not only very labor-intensive but also very difficult to complete. Another complicating factor is that the decision-making officials in the numerous departments and agencies involved have many other important responsibilities that cannot be neglected. We also are going through a certification process, as are all of the other National Capital Region (NCR) jurisdictions, via what is called the Emergency Management Accreditation Program (EMAP). This process also has slowed our EOP update. We are in a continuous and constant learning curve from previous disaster events. Nonetheless, we make every effort possible to keep up with and implement the changes needed to improve our overall planning and response process. We also realize that more revisions undoubtedly will be forthcoming because of all of the lessons learned from the problems that occurred in the Gulf States during and in the aftermath of the 2005 hurricane season and with the expected, or at least recommended, reorganization of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Greater Cooperation, Improved Communications It should be emphasized that most county departments have embraced the changes needed, and realize that the way we plan, respond to, mitigate, and recover from all-hazard events is a changing and – it is hoped – constantly improving process. In any event, we have no other choice but to keep moving forward. Nonetheless, it has been a daunting challenge to tackle and implement all of the HSPDs issued and, at the same time, to continue our efforts to accomplish state and local objectives and mandates. Clearly, though, we need more staff to keep up with all of the information that comes from so many different sources and to implement the new programs mandated. (Here I will not even touch on the many grant processes that agencies have to go through to obtain the funding for equipment and programs provided under HSPD 8.)             One of the more positive aspects of the process is that local jurisdictions are now working much more closely with one another than ever before. Grant funding and the purchase of equipment, for example, are being carried out at the regional level within the National Capital Region. In addition, numerous committees within the Washington Area Council of Governments (COG) are now better coordinated and communicating better, and more frequently, on topics and programs that affect the entire region. One major document of continuing significance that has come out of COG is the National Capital Region’s Homeland Security Strategic Plan, which lays out the vision, mission, goals, and objectives set for the entire region. The COG plan established four “goal groups” – Planning and Decision Making; Community Engagement; Prevention/Mitigation; and Response/Recovery – toentify region-wide weaknesses including special needs, long-term recovery, and the readiness capabilities of the cities/jurisdictions within the region. COG also determined a number of objectives that served as the foundation for the development of specific initiatives. Regional homeland security gaps wereentified by the goal groups and matched to the target capability areas, as noted in the matrix accompanying this article. [refer to National Capital Region Homeland Security Gap Matrix] The goal groups developed 40 initiatives, all of which deserve further attention, implementation, and funding. Out of the entire set of proposed initiatives nine overarching themes [see Overarching Themes table] emerged, ranging from Feedback Mechanisms and Gap Analysis to the establishment of Protocols for Emergency Communications. Out of the 40 initiatives the goal groupsentified goal-specific priority initiatives and presented them to a peer review group, which cross-checked the initiatives against the seven national preparedness priorities and 37 target capabilities that had earlier been developed by the Department of Homeland Security. The peer review group also determined how the priority initiatives could be used to address one or more of the NCR’s underlying weaknesses. The first set of priority initiatives established by the goal groups [see Goal Groups Priority Initiatives table].          A matrix of “priority initiatives” and how they relate to the seven national homeland security priorities also was developed, and plans were made to, among other things:

  1. Implement NIMS and the National Response Plan;
  2. Expand Regional Collaboration;
  3. Implement the National Infrastructure Implementation Plan;
  4. Strengthen Information Sharing and Collaboration Capabilities;
  5. Strengthen Interoperable Communications;
  6. Strengthen Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear Detection, Response and Decontamination; and
  7. Strengthen Medical Surge and Mass Prophylaxis Capabilities.

 Additional Initiatives Forthcoming The regional homeland-security gaps addressed by the Planning and Decision Making group within their initiatives include: enhancing transparency; increasing the involvement of stakeholders; and establishing oversight and accountability. The Community Engagement group initiatives will address the lack of an overall strategic communications plan and deficiencies in the information provided to the public. Prevention and Mitigation initiatives will look at stakeholder involvement, standard alert notification, information provided to the public during emergency stages, and the vulnerability aspects of public and private coordination. Response and Recovery priority initiatives will address such topics and issues as a standardized alert notification, information provided to the public, long-term recovery, special needs, and mass care. At this point it seems clear that the NCR’s Strategic Homeland Security Plan will accomplish several goals: It will bring the region closer together and increase cooperation among all of the jurisdictions involved; it will establish appropriate priorities within the region and set up a plan for grant funding of the initiatives; finally, it will be used to close or reduce the homeland-security gaps previously identified and thereby move the entire region closer to developing capabilities in the mission areas targeted. The implementation of NIMS and the NRP will be accomplished on a regional basis in such a way as to ensure that no jurisdiction is left behind. In short, the completed plan will both complement and build upon the NCR’s own Homeland Security Mission Statement: “Build and sustain an integrated effort to prepare for, prevent, protect against, respond to, and recover from ‘all-hazards’ threats or events.”  

Brian Geraci

Brian Geraci is a Battalion Chief with the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service, Montgomery County, Maryland. He is presently assigned to Montgomery County’s Homeland Security Department. Chief Geraci has over 30 years of service in the county and was a charter member of the county’s Hazardous Incident Response Team and served as one of the team leaders.

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