The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

May 19, 2013

Fayette looking to improve disaster plans

By C.V. Moore
Register-Herald Reporter

FAYETTEVILLE — Improving the county’s communications during a disaster is a top priority of the Fayette County Office of Emergency Services, says the agency’s new director.

“The first priority is public notification, from getting information out to individuals to getting information out to media sources,” says Shawn Wolford, who began work in Fayette County in March.

“We’re definitely looking to improve our means of notification.”

Wolford says the county is reworking and updating its contact list for that reason.

They’re also pushing a free alert system that will notify the public of safety and community information during emergencies. Anyone can sign up to receive instant alerts by text message, e-mail or the web.

The service is offered free to the county by a private company, Nixle. To sign up, visit nixle.com or text your ZIP code to 888777 to enroll instantly.

“The more people who sign up, the more effective it is,” says Wolford.

During last summer’s derecho, some criticized the county’s response as slow and disorganized.

Wolford’s position was empty at that time.

“I think there’s a clear chain of command now that was maybe lacking in the past,” he says. “A lot of it comes back to the county’s operations plan. That clearly defines who reports to who, and who makes the decisions ultimately.”

Every county is supposed to have an emergency operations plan available at its emergency operations center and at the courthouse. They are to be reviewed and updated on a regular basis.

Such plans originated decades ago with hazardous materials response and have grown to include natural and manmade disasters.

Soon, the county’s emergency operations will move to its new location in a brand new facility at Wolf Creek Park. Officials are hoping that the move will be an opportunity to reorganize and streamline operations.

“We’re looking at improving ourselves in-house so we’re more efficient,” says Wolford.

Fayette County participates in monthly meetings with emergency managers from around the region, which often include representation from the West Virginia Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

Their mission is to oversee disaster preparedness, mitigation and response and recovery efforts by coordinating, supporting and guiding local emergency managers and first responders.

Often, the group will discuss upcoming “planned events,” which are scheduled nonemergency activities that can be planned for ahead of time.

For Fayette County, that means events like Bridge Day or the 2013 National Scout Jamboree, which will take place just outside Mount Hope.

The scale of these events is such that counties must plan to pool resources and work together. The Jamboree is a good example of how state, local and federal teams must work together for larger events, says Wolford.

Fayette County has participated in multiple simulations of the Jamboree on the grounds of the Summit Bechtel Reserve, in addition to undertaking several “desktop exercises” to figure out how best to respond and communicate about any emergencies that may occur.

A Local Emergency Planning Commission (LEPC) also meets monthly in Fayette, as is required by law. The group is composed of representatives from various interests, whether that be emergency services, local hospitals or the school board.

“It’s a spectrum of the community and the county,” said Wolford. “Typically your LEPC is kind of the out in front body that works to get information out to people and works to do things on a joint basis throughout the county.”

The bulk of disaster preparedness funding comes from in-county sources, says Wolford, whether from the general budget or special levies like Fayette’s fire levy. Grant programs are also available on the federal and state level.

In Fayette County, Wolford says the most likely incidents to occur are weather-related, including flash floods, wind events and snow storms.

Emergency managers — from the federal level down to the local — are encouraging households to think about and prepare for disasters themselves.

“The first 72 are on you,” is the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s rallying cry these days, meaning that citizens should be ready to care for themselves and their families for three days following a major disaster.

— E-mail: cmoore@register-herald.com