Walworth County Government Today: County leaders do their best to plan for the worst

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Dave Bretl | May 2, 2016

About 20 Walworth County managers have been busy this spring learning about emergency operations and planning on what they would need to do in the event a crisis were to occur. The training is organized by the county's emergency management director, Lt. John Ennis of the sheriff's office. In addition to our own staff, representatives from other agencies, including Wisconsin Emergency Management, law enforcement departments and the National Guard have been participating.

The training takes place in our Emergency Operations Center, which is a large room located in the Walworth County Judicial Center, specifically designed for managing the response to a large-scale natural or manmade disaster. The space consists of computer work stations and telephone lines that would be needed to support the employees and officials who would respond to the crisis. Its location in the judicial center provides some advantages, including security screening to enter the building, as well as its proximity to our data center. Given the number of computer systems that support government at all levels, keeping our information technology systems running would play a critical role in any crisis.

I was happy to hear from some of the state officials that our EOC is better than many in the state. In some counties, EOCs serve multiple functions, including, I was told, an employee Pilates studio. In cases like these, valuable time would need to be spent bringing equipment into the facility to make it operational in a time of crisis.  Such multipurpose rooms also serve as a deterrent for conducting emergency training. Not only will other activities like the Pilates class be displaced, the hassle of moving equipment in and out of the room provides an excuse for skipping the training or even activating the center when it might make sense. Our EOC actually gets a lot of use. When it is not being used for its primary purpose, it serves as a computer training room. With rows of computers and a large display board at the front of the room, it makes an ideal classroom to train employees on the latest software releases.  This use also ensures that computers are used and constantly updated so they will function properly if a disaster were to occur.

There is no shortage of acronyms in emergency management. This is due, in part, to the military origins of the emergency planning process. I have tried to spare you most of them, but an important one that needs to be mentioned is the ICP, or incident command post. I mention the ICP because it helps illustrate the role of our EOC and why our facility, which may be located 15 miles away from the actual disaster, provides any value. An ICP is typically set up very close to the disaster scene.  There, law enforcement and fire officials make the minute-to-minute decisions needed to save lives and protect property.  Blocking off roads, putting out fires and providing medical care to survivors are just a few of these tasks. The EOC, on the other hand, supports the ICP by obtaining needed resources, providing policy direction, disseminating information to the press and public and furnishing administrative support. You wouldn't want an accountant and a purchasing agent taking up room at an ICP, but you probably would want both of them in an EOC. If large cranes were needed to assist in the rescue effort, our purchasing manager would be better able to find and pay for that equipment than the folks at ground zero. 

Periodically, various government agencies are brought together to conduct tabletop exercises to respond to simulated disasters. These exercises often point out the need to purchase certain equipment, provide additional training to workers or enact procedures to more effectively respond to a crisis. All of our training is leading up to a major tabletop exercise in which we will participate later this year. A few of our challenges as we gear up for that event include:

• Availability of staff. We sometimes take for granted that our employees will always be available during a time of crisis.  In the case of staffing our EOC, our depth chart needs to account for the fact that key managers may be out of state on vacation when a crisis strikes or may be victims of the disaster themselves. A crisis such as an ice storm may last for weeks. Ensuring that we have enough trained personnel to sustain operations is a high priority.

• Accountability. Responding to a major crisis undoubtedly would necessitate skipping procedures that are now in place to govern everyday situations. While cutting through a certain amount of red tape would expedite a disaster response, that red tape exists for a reason; deterring waste and fraud are two of them. Good procedures should provide leaders with flexibility to purchase needed equipment and supplies during a crisis, but still maintain appropriate checks and balances.

• Too much of a good thing. People tend to be very generous in the aftermath of a crisis, offering to donate food, supplies and even their own services to help victims. In some instances, other agencies simply show up or “self-report” to the disaster scene before being asked. Without proper coordination, all of this extra help actually can hinder recovery efforts. While the county has hundreds of loyal volunteers, organizing the efforts of hundreds or thousands more on short notice and distributing donated funds and supplies is an area on which we will focus.

Even the best planning can't prevent a natural disaster from occurring. Good planning, however, can improve the county's response should one occur.

Dave Bretl is the Walworth County administrator. Contact him at 262-741-4357 or visit www.co.walworth.wi.us.

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