Planning For Neighborhood Safety in an Emergency

Some may have the reasonable expectation that governmental agencies will have our back in a disaster, and will sooner rather than later ride in on white horses and fix everything. Dependency on such top-down relief support is wrong thinking on several levels, and is a serious impediment to recognizing a need to prepare.

Self-reliance and neighborly cooperation must solve all problems for the initial period of need. The only aspect of governmental support that will be appreciated early on is the self-reliance training provided ahead of time that serves us well, and the professionalism of the first responders we may eventually meet. Expect no help in the first 72 hours, and not much help in the first two weeks. One must look to neighbors and to our local communities, the source of our first responders, for substantive resources.

Finding What’s Available When Risk Becomes Our Reality

The active role of Federal, State, and County governmental organizations in disaster recovery appears limited to risk assessment, policy creation, planning guidance, and communications support. One must drill down to local sites to obtain useful information for private citizens.

Note: FEMA describes a volunteer organization called Citizen Corps that has its own web site hierarchy. I was unsuccessful in drilling down to meaningful local information via this route. One discovers pages with no information content that haven’t been updated for years. This did not bode well. So I abandoned it and followed a direct National/State/County drill down through the main FEMA sites.

The FEMA main website provides a simple outline map of the states. The citizen wanting pertinent information should click through to their state to begin to access relevant preparedness and disaster response guidance.

FEMA’s own web page for Washington state is the initial click-thru target. There FEMA lists prominently the most recent Washington disasters, highlighting FEMA’s involvement. At the bottom of the page there are some links. The first is the one we want, a link to our Washington State Emergency Management Division (WA EMD), part of the WA Military Division, home of the WA National Guard and State Guard. This EMD site lists some general emergency planning resources, then at the bottom provides a link to local emergency management agencies in the state. This link in turn brings up an outline map of WA counties which have implemented emergency management programs. Clicking through to Snohomish County brings up the Snohomish Department of Emergency Management (DEM) site.

Note: It’s probably best to skip the Directors Message on the DEM site and all similar bureaucracy-speak (BS) found across government sites at all levels. It appears the principal activity of the higher levels of agency is writing grant proposals to fund expansion of their corners of the bureaucracy, and then publicly patting themselves on the back. Even more discouraging, emphasis on sensitivity to culture and gender diversity and the importance of psychological counseling crowds all other disaster preparedness and recovery information off the web pages. I find it an embarrassment; YMMV.

The rest of the Snohomish DEM site is successful, identifying itself as the lead emergency management agency for Snohomish County, and as the specific coordinating agency for outlying municipalities and unincorporated/tribal areas in the county. The county has two other emergency management agencies as well that are linked on the DEM site. The city of Everett has its own agency, and the Emergency Services Coordinating Agency (ESCA) is a third agency that coordinates the programs of several other municipalities around Everett, including ours.

Finally, the rubber meets the road. The ESCA page is professional-looking and simple to digest. The main page lists current volunteer training opportunities and other time-sensitive or seasonal information and tips. The sidebar links to planning and volunteer resources. ESCA’s three-person professional staff are all Certified Emergency Managers, a hopeful resource to have. Under volunteer opportunities, the site does not list some volunteer opportunities that are provided on the Snohomish DEM site.

While the terms Community Emergency Readiness Training (CERT) and Citizen Corps seem nearly interchangeable in FEMA parlance, it appears the Citizens Corps is a high-level FEMA policy directive whose only boots on the ground are the CERT volunteers. Thus we can dispense with further interest and curiosity in Citizen Corps and its vacuous online hierarchy; cut to the chase with CERT. (Perhaps that would be money-saving advice for FEMA as well.) CERT volunteers cooperate with local first responders to organize and train citizens in disaster recovery readiness.

Map Your Neighborhood (MYN)

CERT volunteers typically help community association leaders initiate neighborhood preparedness programs. Many neighborhoods have formed emergency and disaster committees. It is advisable to join yours, or get CERT-trained and start one. The expertise pooled in these organizations will be essential to a smooth recovery. They will have on-the-ground resources identified and mapped, procedures in place, neighbors aware. They will know the needs of first responders and how to assist. They will be able to help access the limited governmental resources available.

Most west coast communities utilize the Map Your Neighborhood guidelines, a program created by Dr. LuAn Johnson. MYN suggests nine steps to perform within the first hour, the golden 60 minutes that if well-spent, can save lives and property that would otherwise be lost. MYN suggests steps for emergency preparation, including developing inventory of neighborhood skills and equipment that would be useful in a disaster situation, contact lists of neighbors with special needs that would benefit from priority attention after a disaster event, and a neighborhood structure map identifying locations of gas meters and propane tanks. MYN further enhances emergency readiness through specifying contents for a grab&go kit if bugging out is the best option, a safety kit of protective gear to be used during the emergency and its immediate aftermath, and supply stores to enable sheltering in place if the dwelling is still habitable.

MYN Steps 1-6 are performed at one’s own home:

  • Check well-being of the inhabitants
  • Put on protective clothing
  • If gas odor is present, turn off gas at the meter
  • If water is leaking, turn off water at the street
  • Put up a sign visible from the curb: OK or HELP
  • Place fire extinguishers at the curb

MYN steps 7-9 involve community collaboration:

  • Go to the planned Neighborhood Gathering Site
  • Form teams to canvas the homes:
    • check gas/water lines as above
    • check for HELP sign or no sign
    • check registered special needs neighbors
    • monitor emergency communications and alert channels
  • Re-assemble at Gathering Site to share news

A Community Readiness Example

We live in a large planned development comprised of several sub-developments. Our sub-development consists of 150 SF residences. It has a central emergency response organization and five cooperation zones (CZ) averaging 30 residences each. Thus our disaster preparedness and response organization has the individual homeowner as the primary unit, the CZ as the first cooperative agency, then our entire development along with the City and County, sources of our first responders.

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