Editor’s Note: This column, “LBWA” (Leadership By Wandering Around), is based on the premise that, in order to find out what’s going on in the field, a parks and rec leader has to leave his or her desk and “wander around” the area of operations, talk to people, ask questions, and kick around ideas with the individuals in the thick of delivering services to the public. So the author will bring up issues and ask the leaders among the readership to share their knowledge and experiences.
I’m not sure how other cities handle emergency operations, but in Peachtree City, Ga., everybody has a role to play. Parks and recreation is responsible for emergency shelter, food and transportation until the Red Cross or other emergency agencies can take over.
Coming from a military background, I am all over this. Preparing for the worst is what the military does. So in 1997–soon after I took the job as parks and recreation director–I discovered that the city had an emergency operations plan, and I was eager to be part of it.
Even though there was a general awareness that some type of emergency plan existed, not many recreation staff members knew what our role would be. There was a dusty copy of the plan on a shelf, and a handful of staff members knew it was there, but only one or two knew what was in it. Most people assumed that fire and police would handle emergencies.
So I was disconcerted to learn that if we had an emergency, we would be scrambling around trying to figure out who did what. These emergencies could range from weather events to train derailments to–in today’s world state of affairs–worse.
As The Century Turned
At first, it was a challenge to get anyone really motivated to vitalize and internalize the emergency plan. Then, Y2K intervened. You remember Y2K–the turn of the century when all the doomsday predictions were rampant. Thankfully, most of the hype was just that, and amounted to nothing; however, it did spur our city to dust off the emergency plan.
About this time, a new fire chief with a military background also came on board. The fire department was responsible for the overall preparation and dissemination of the emergency plan, so he and I discussed the need to not only dust off the existing plan, but also exercise it. The best plan in the world will not work if it hasn’t been tested, re-tested and tested again … and even then it has to have built-in flexibility to survive.
Y2K freed up many resources that normally would not have made the budget cut. For example, as we looked at how we would provide a shelter in various emergency scenarios, it became apparent that we needed generators. Recreation didn’t have generators at the time; we borrowed from public works if we needed one.
But in an emergency, public works would predictably be using theirs. So, we were able to justify three generators of our own. We still have them, keep them serviced, ready to go and accessible, and also have use for them on a regular basis. We also have emergency light pods, heaters and fans, extension cords, cots, blankets, first-aid supplies and other equipment staged, ready to go if needed.
Feeding An Army
If we had to provide food and water for a large number of people and the power was out in the city or we couldn’t get to grocery stores, how would we do it? Again, the military experience intervened–Meals, Ready-to-Eat (MREs). These delectable favorites are what troops eat in the field. They’re nutritious, filling and, with the proper application of hot sauce and other secret ingredients, can be quite tasty. We obtained a pallet of several hundred meals, which we still maintain. We donated the first pallet to New Orleans after Katrina, and are now on the second pallet. The great thing is these “meals in a bag” have a shelf life of about 100 years (just joking … but a very long time).
We also obtained a pallet of bottled water, boxes of blankets, cots and emergency medical supplies. We keep these items in one accessible section of the storage area. We use the generators for routine tasks, which is good to keep them running, but they are always returned to their holding area.
One of the best things we obtained as a result of Y2K was communication. Previously, we had fairly old radio communication that was unreliable, and if it was out, we had only land lines. As anyone in the business knows, in handling emergencies, communication is a top priority. If key players up and down the chain of command can’t communicate, the whole process is compromised.
So we were able to justify cell phones that double as cell radios. All key staff–including the maintenance crew– still have them today, upgraded several times, of course.
A Ripple Effect
After 9/11, emergency preparedness took on a whole new level of importance. Thankfully, we had already massaged our plan, and now we’re getting more sophisticated. We set up a standing Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in one of our fire stations, with back-up EOCs designated elsewhere. We implemented a formal staff-recall system to get the EOC manned and running quickly. Things that used to be done by hand are now being done on laptops.
We started doing live drills where we actually put people in the field and call in requests for support. In one scenario, we had a scale-model city set up to help visualize actions.
The catastrophe of 9/11 has also driven more federal and state requirements in order to qualify for grants. All staff has gone through the various levels of required National Incident Management System training. We’re coordinating training more with adjacent cities and counties so we can share resources.
An effective emergency plan is like insurance–it can appear useless when you don’t need it, but when you need it, you really need it and it needs to be effective. We hope we’ll never have to activate ours, but we will be ready if we do.
I’ll bet readers would be interested to hear how other city and county recreation departments across the country are involved in their emergency plans. Share your roles and ideas because there may be others out there who need them. Or if your department is not involved, tell us why not. E-mail, call, or write PRB or me with your thoughts.
Randy Gaddo is Director of Leisure Services (parks, recreation and library) in Peachtree City, Ga. He can be reached at (770) 631-2542, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org