OpenCDA

December 7, 2015

Our Grade? “Needs Improvement”

Filed under: Probable Cause — Tags: — Bill @ 11:46 am

2015WindstormHead1According to the December 5, 2015, Coeur d’Alene Press skewspaper article headlined Storm emergency center analyzed, Office of Emergency Management (OEM) Director Sandy Von Behren and Kootenai County Commissoner Dan Green gave the OEM’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) a “B” grade for its performance during the November 17, 2015, windstorm.

Based on the information in the Press article, OpenCdA thinks the letter grade “B”  is meaningless.  The best we can do is suggest a narrative grade of “Needs Improvement.” 

The November 17 windstorm and its aftereffects was a high probability of occurrence series of related events.   In Kootenai County a windstorm is part of a larger group of potential civil emergencies given the title Severe Weather events.

According to the Kootenai County Multi-Jurisdictional 2015 All-Hazard Mitigation Plan dated August 2015, Severe Weather represents the highest natural hazard to our area among the eight categories available.   In other words, the Kootenai County Office of Emergency Management assessed that some form of severe weather such as we experienced on November 17 represents the highest probability of events presenting potential risk for loss of life, personal injury, economic injury, and property damage.

We don’t disagree with that assessment, but some of the actions or their timing reported in the December 5 skewspaper story seem inconsistent with it.

From the Press article:

Von Behren said the OEM never underestimated the potential punch of the storm and was well aware of the possible blow as predicted by the National Weather Service. Based on that knowledge, the OEM issued a press release the day before the storm, warning residents to take precautions.

With over 24 hours warning, why wasn’t the Kootenai County Emergency Operations Center activated, meaning staffed and operating, much earlier on November 17?  The Press article reports:

Von Behren said some people don’t realize that OEM staff are not first responders.

“We’re here to support what the first responders need,” she said. “We support tactical operations and what is going on in the field. We identify what additional resources may be needed.”

How, OpenCdA wonders, did the OEM and the EOC expect to be able to operationally support the first responders (presumably she means public safety agencies such as police, fire, and EMS as well as critical nongovernment operations such as public and private utilities) and tactical operations if the emergency is already underway but the EOC has not been activated?

Again, from the Press article:

Von Behren said the emergency operations center (EOC) was activated around 6:30 the night of the storm and it remained open until 1:30 the next morning.

“At 5:30 p.m. we had already briefed the commissioners and we checked with the sheriff’s department and nothing was being requested of us at that time,” Von Behren said. “I was still driving home, and I turned around and came back as requested. I then met with the sheriff and the city of Coeur d’Alene, and it was decided that we needed to activate the EOC.”

You can’t operationally support the first responders and tactical operations if you’re on your way home and the EOC is dark!

Von Behren “turned around and came back as requested.”  Requested by whom?  Based on what additional information?  What changed between “5:30 p.m. [when] we had already brief the commissioners and … checked with the sheriff’s department” and the time she arrived after returning when she “met with the sheriff and the city of Coeur d’Alene” and the decision was made to activate the EOC?

From the Press article:

County Commissioner Dan Green said a concern was raised about OEM being temporarily closed during the storm and possible operations communication hiccups, but commissioners were briefed on how activities went and he feels comfortable overall about it.

“Based on what I know, things went fine,” Green said. “Sandy was instructed that OEM’s services weren’t needed and, when it was realized that they were needed, she turned around and opened (the EOC) up.”

As the wind is blowing, trees are falling on homes, cars and powerlines, and power is going out in not just Kootenai County but the entire region, what competent official with the authority to give such an order would tell Kootenai County’s Office of Emergency Management Director that “OEM’s services weren’t needed”?  Who instructed her that OEM’s services weren’t needed?

The EOC was “activated” at 6:30 p.m. on November 17.  Exactly what does “activated” mean as it was used in the article?  To OpenCdA, an”activated” EOC is one that is fully staffed and functioning.

In an incident such as this one with over 24 hours lead time, the decision to activate the EOC should have been made on Monday, November 16.  The decision would have included the activation time on November 17.  Once that decision had been made on November 16, the OEM should have immediately begun notifying the EOC Planning Partners and the various nongovernment operations (e.g., utility companies, broadcast media, etc.) of the decision so they could interact and prepare appropriately.

The EOC staffing participants would have been told to be at the EOC no later than some time specified on November 17 to receive a pre-activation briefing.  Based on the information known to the County on November 16 (the day before the storm hit), the OEM would have notified EOC participants to be at the EOC at some T-minus hour before the scheduled activation time to receive a pre-operation briefing.  Thereafter at the designated time on November 17, the EOC would have been activated with all participants in their seats and ready to go.

Based on timely, accurate information coming in to the EOC, the OEM could have begun to scale back the EOC’s operation.  According to the Press article, it sounds as if that is what happened on Wednesday morning.

***

As private citizens living in Coeur d’Alene but also having a secondary residence on Cave Bay just outside Worley, we have some observations and suggestions.

  • The Press article reported, “[Kootenai County Commissioner] Green said it’s possible some local agencies may consider branching out and forming their own OEM of sorts, but cautioned fracturing the countywide service may have negative effects.”  Our view is that the various public safety agencies and utility companies throughout the region were trained and prepared, and they executed their various responsibilities and duties exceptionally well in spite of the involvement of the Kootenai County Office of Emergency Management, not because of it.
  • Nevertheless, we hope that all of the existing Planning Partners and the nongovernmental operations involved in this emergency will work together and demand that Kootenai County work with them to evaluate what went right and what went wrong, then adjust accordingly.  The Incident Command System, which includes  Multiagency Coordination Systems, works when it’s properly understood, trained, exercised, applied, and evaluated.
  • Relocate the Office of Emergency Management from the Sheriff’s Office to the County Admin Building, and relocate the Emergency Operations Center to be adjacent to the Kootenai County Consolidated Central Dispatch and Communications Center at 3380 N. Julia Street in Coeur d’Alene. Keep the EOC on the same lot as Central Dispatch but physically separate from the Central Dispatch so a problem or traffic in and out of the EOC does not in any way interfere with Central Dispatch. It must not be necessary for visitors and participants at the EOC to enter the existing Central Dispatch facility.
  • There is no valid reason for the OEM Director to not be immediately accessible to the BOCC at the County Admin Building. The BOCC is the Director’s immediate supervisor and more importantly, it is a decision maker in OEM matters during an emergency. The Director is a staff officer who needs to be physically accessible to County government officials during an emergency.
  • There is no valid reason for the Director to still be in the Sheriff’s Office — the Director does not work for the Sheriff, and the Sheriff’s Office can probably use the space.  Likewise, the OEM EOC needs to be as close as possible to the County’s emergency communications primary facility on Julia in order to facilitate the acquisition of necessary information and its timely dissemination to others and the public.
  • Regardless of whether the EOC is ever relocated or not, the OEM Director needs to work with the KXLY Group engineer and ownership to seek FCC authorization for KVNI to operate with daytime power at night during emergencies and to establish an Audio Over IP path between the EOC and the KVNI studio in Coeur d’Alene. Put CODECs on both ends of the path so that broadcast audio and IFB paths allow a remote broadcast connection from the EOC to the KVNI studio. The objective is to have a live broadcast remote, staffed by an EOC staffer or an approved outside announcer in the EOC, provide timely information for live broadcast directly from the EOC during an emergency.  Personal communications devices that have rechargeable and non-replaceable batteries can’t be charged if the power is out.  They don’t work with dead batteries that can’t be recharged or replaced.  Everyone has a radio in the car, and AM/FM portable radios with replaceable batteries are cheap.  The OEM needs to work closely with the local radio station to do what’s necessary to reach as many people as possible before and during an emergency such as the windstorm.  Relying exclusively on Spokane broadcast media and on any internet-based media or cellular telephones (including SMS) is a serious mistake.   If KXLY Group wants to post the info from its AOIP path on social media or feed the program audio to other outlets, that’s fine, but real-time AM and FM commercial radio broadcasts are still the most effective way of reaching the most people when the power is out.  AM radio’s not nerdy or cool, but it is still effective.   It’s also psychologically calming to turn on the portable radio when the power’s out and hear a calm, reassuring, comforting voice providing authoritative information and instructions.
  • Establish a secondary EOC in Post Falls as close as possible to the PF PD dispatch center. We believe the PF PD dispatch center already serves as the backup for the Central Dispatch if Central Dispatch becomes inoperable.  The secondary EOC would be used if the primary EOD in Coeur d’Alene was inoperable or otherwise unuseable.
  • Urge appropriate elected and appointed officials (BOCC, mayors, etc.) to complete FEMA Course G0402: Incident Command System Overview for Executives and Senior Officials, ICS 402. If they’re going to be involved in making decisions or evaluating ones recommended by the OEM Director, they ought to have some idea of what’s going on.  (This course is scheduled to be available in Coeur d’Alene.)

In our post entitled Windstorm – The Next Step on November 27, 2015, we linked readers to various Kootenai  County emergency response plans.  We use the last paragraph from that post to conclude this one today:

The November 17, 2015, windstorm that clobbered our region was a serious emergency.  Its severity should not be minimized.  Our suggestion is that each OpenCdA reader make your own evaluation of the effectiveness of your state, county, city, and tribal governments’ planning and execution during that emergency.  Then communicate your constructive observations and suggestions to your elected officials.   They need our input to better prepare for the next disaster.

6 Comments

  1. Someone ask me how did all those different agencies respond so fast and work together so well at the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, the answer was simple they had a PLAN and they TRAINED, not just phone call training but real move equipment and people around training so you can really see where problems might occur.
    Here if there is a plan (which I doubt) it would seem no one knows about it.
    If they need help all they have to do is say so, there are hundreds of retired law and fire that did this stuff for a living and would most likely jump at a chance to be useful.

    Comment by Mike Teague — December 7, 2015 @ 12:31 pm

  2. Mike,

    The planning was clear at the very first press conference in San Berdo. It was either the San Berdo Chief of Police or County Sheriff who said, “We have established a unified command…”. Reminded me of CSTI in beautiful SLO.

    Comment by Bill — December 7, 2015 @ 1:35 pm

  3. Will the KCOEM be better prepared for the predicted storm on Wednesday? Will the office stay open rather than close at 5:30?

    Comment by Susie Snedaker — December 7, 2015 @ 2:04 pm

  4. Susie,

    I don’t know. I think it would have been helpful if at least the major participants in the emergency on the 17th and after would have been able to get together and discuss what went right and what went wrong. Regardless, the KCOEM’s responses need to be guided by available information. For example, that the wind velocities (sustained and peak/gust) are expected to be less on Wednesday sounds encouraging, but the ground is saturated and thawed. If the winds come from the right (or wrong) directions, trees that stood after the 17th could be uprooted and go across lines this time. I suspect that regardless of what the KCOEM does or doesn’t do, the public safety agencies, the utility companies, and the hospital will be just as ready and able as they were before.

    Comment by Bill — December 7, 2015 @ 2:56 pm

  5. I do not understand why the school gyms with showers were not opened for those who needed shelter. The schools opened up during Ice Storm, and they could open up in times of emergency.

    Comment by Susie Snedaker — December 7, 2015 @ 8:45 pm

  6. Susie,

    The responsibility for that level of strategic planning and pre-incident coordination rests with the Kootenai County Board of Commissioners and its subordinate component, the Kootenai County Office of Emergency Management.

    The goals, objectives, and performance measures of the KCOEM are summarized in this 2015 KCOEM Budget Narrative.

    The responsibility for fulfilling the goals and achieving the objectives falls on the Director of the KCOEM. Here is the KCOEM Director’s position description.

    As explained in the budget summary and indicated on the Kootenai County organizational chart, the performance evaluation of the KCOEM Director is the duty and responsibility of the Kootenai County Board of Commissioners.

    The answer to your question in Comment 5 should probably come from the school districts in Kootenai County. It would be their understanding, preparation, and training for this kind of response that would tell you how well the BOCC and the KCOEM had fulfilled their duties and responsibilities. In oversimplified terms, it is the KCOEM’s responsibility to have been doing that kind of coordination with not just school districts but other possible emergency assistance providers all along. In anticipation of some future but as yet undefined emergency, that coordination is based on regular communication and interaction and not ususally on-the-fly after an emergency has begun. How well or how poorly that coordination has been done and the emergency assistance providers (e.g., a school, a private business, other mass-assembly facilities) are ready to deliver what people often consider “above and beyond” assistance on a moments notice will depend on the diligence and competence of the BOCC and the KCOEM.

    Comment by Bill — December 8, 2015 @ 6:28 am

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