Sound The Alarm

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.

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