The Howard County Office of Emergency Management’s (OEM) Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) updated the community on its emergency management planning efforts in May. During the event, LEPC provided information on programs designed to incorporate the private sector into the emergency management framework, providing the business community a voice during emergencies and increasing information sharing between the private and public sectors.
“We’ve taken the next step forward, so that you, as the consuming public, know where to go during an emergency when you hear about something and want to learn more,” said Howard County OEM Deputy Director Thomas McNeal.
In an event such as last year’s historic Ellicott City flood, it’s helpful to have a coordinated approach to information vetting and dissemination, he said.
“The point is, we’ve got to do more outreach to start making things work better,” McNeal said.
Approximately 30 participants, ranging from private business owners to nonprofit organization and local government agency representatives, attended the event.
New Reception Center
Aside from natural disasters, the region’s residents and first responders are also susceptible to emergencies stemming from potential terrorist attacks, accidents involving hazardous chemicals or radiological material, and environmental hazards related to illicit drug use.
“Several [fire] department members recently participated in a counterterrorism workshop that involved a simulated coordinated attack at several locations throughout the Baltimore metropolitan region,” said Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Assistant Fire Chief Joseph Dixon. “It tested the response and capabilities of responders across the region.”
The department has also acquired a robot that can assist in water recovery efforts.
“Every year, we have people in Howard County who drown in bodies of water, and it puts [responders] at risk to recover these bodies,” Dixon said. “This robot helps mitigate some of that risk.”
According to Bert Nixon, director of Howard County’s Bureau of Environmental Health, the county’s Health Department is developing plans for a Community Reception Center capable of addressing human decontamination and dealing with medical issues resulting from a radiological exposure event.
“I think it will be a worthwhile thing to have,” he said, adding that the county is also beginning a public service announcement campaign to educate the public about prevention measures in relation to the approaching Zika season.
Nixon provided an update on the Bureau’s work with other county agencies on ongoing efforts still tied to Ellicott City’s flood recovery.
“There are still a number of businesses in various stages of trying to reopen,” he said, adding that the primary focus is now on food facilities. “We’re down to just two restaurants at this point in time, a new one trying to move into an impacted place and an existing restaurant that’s trying to reopen.”
In March, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan signed an executive order declaring the state’s opioid crisis a state of emergency and tasked emergency managers with coordinating response efforts in their respective jurisdictions.
Finding that a number of organizations were already working on the problem, “OEM was able to coordinate those different bodies together and help them bridge their own gaps,” McNeal said.
While it’s effective to attack the problem at a local jurisdictional level, “This is an act of war, and it’s being discussed at that level,” he said. “Enemies are making this stuff and dumping it into America.”
In some cases, skin contact with some of the dangerous substances that are being mixed with heroin have the potential to kill first responders, posing yet another risk for police and emergency medical technicians. “A lot of jurisdictions are no longer doing field tests,” McNeal said. “They’re packaging [substances] up to send to the lab where they can be tested in a controlled environment.”
Speaking on behalf of the Howard County Community Emergency Response Network (CERN), Pamela Simonson said her organization focused on emergency communications at its last meeting. CERN is looking to become more involved in participatory operations and collaboration with LEPC, she added, to include sharing resources and working together to plan and co-present trainings and programs.
“With that in mind, we are working with the Foreign-born Information and Referral Network (FIRN) on a pictorial emergency card that will hopefully address some of the needs during emergencies with our non-English speaking residents,” Simonson said.
Charissa Cooper, who serves as private sector liaison and National Capitol Region planner for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency (MEMA), provided an overview of unique resources available to business owners who join MEMA’s free Private Sector Integration Program (PSIP).
These include the Maryland Joint Operations Center that aggregates information for major flood and traffic issues, the Business Operations Center (BOC) that disseminates information during emergency situations and the Virtual Business Operations Center (VBOC), which displays specific event information on an interactive website hosted on the Homeland Security Information Network.
“BOC members receive a direct e-mail address and phone line to receive information during an emergency situation,” Cooper said. “It is a one-stop shop for private sector members during emergencies. We sort out your questions and needs and get information back to you.”
With information coming from a variety of sources official and unofficial, the BOC helps separate legitimate information from misinformation, helping business owners make informed operational decisions, she said.
Enabled by Adobe Connect web conferencing software, the interactive VBOC website consolidates traffic camera access, weather maps and other tools that increase situational awareness into a single online platform to provide information relevant to a specific situation.
Vince Collurafici, a sales representative for the Elkridge-based Alban CAT construction and power equipment company, said the PSIP could benefit his organization.
“We do a lot of work helping Anne Arundel County and other jurisdictions, as far as emergencies and power outages,” Collurafici said. “We always have generators on standby and can respond within about two hours, so it makes sense for us to try the partnership. We can help them, and they can help us.”
As the calendar approaches the one-year anniversary of the most recent Ellicott City flood, MEMA is urging business owners in Maryland to take advantage of an opportunity to better facilitate communication and situational awareness.
“The PSIP has members ranging from large corporations and big box stores down to mom-and-pops and everything in between,” Cooper said. “The size and scope of member organizations does not matter, and the program is free.”