"Burying" FEMA in DHS was "huge structural and operational mistake"

an ongoing challenge, especially as more people move away from landlines and rely entirely on mobile phones. What steps are local agencies doing to improve their communication systems and what challenges still remain?

AH: At the broadest level, interoperability remains a real issue. I served on a national panel following 9/11 and we accomplished much in “what” needed to be done. But the economy’s effect on local budgets, indecision by federal officials, and a waning urgency by many elected officials has had the net result of slow and low progress. Most of the accomplishments that have been achieved have come at the local level. This is a problem that will plague us in future major incidents. We have much work still to do here.

Many local governments have been aggressive in communicating with their residents about emergency preparedness and disaster survival, but we have only scratched the surface in most cases. We need to carry this message to neighborhoods, home-owners’ associations, civic groups, and our schools. In Evans, we are currently in the planning stage of how we can get the word out through our schools. Our Chamber of Commerce has been a partner in talking to our businesses about disaster recovery. We will be upgrading our city webpage this fall and the new version will contain much more information of preparedness and safety. What is important here is to maintain continuous effort. Educating and preparing our communities is a job that never ends.

HSNW: A recent survey by the National Center for Disaster Preparedness found that the majority of respondents lacked emergency plans and also maintained the erroneous belief that emergency responders would arrive within several hours of a major disaster. What can local governments and the federal governments do to better educate and prepare residents for emergencies?

AH: If a community today is without an emergency response plan I can only say, “Get one now!” No matter how unlikely a disaster might seem, it’s not a question of “if,” it’s a question of “when.” Protecting the people we serve is our most important responsibility. Responding without a plan is like disarming a bomb with your eyes closed. It might work out okay, but are you willing to risk the lives of your residents on that? I’m Irish, so I believe in luck. However, I’m not naive enough to base the success of our emergency response on luck. I won’t take chances with the lives and property of the people who depend on my team to be there when things go bad.

I believe in planning for the first eight hours of a disaster. I’ll plan further if I can, but those first few hours are the most critical. The decisions you make and the actions you take during this time that will most affect the outcome of your response. Make good decisions, take good actions, and do the right things. How can you do this when it’s also the time during which you have the least information, the fewest resources and the most chaos? By having a plan! Not everything will go right even with a plan. But fewer things will go badly wrong if you do have one.

Get your people activated and equipped, start moving resources to where you need them, and deal with life-safety first. Your neighbors will come – certainly within a few hours. The state will help – tomorrow or the next day. Understand that the federal government is not a response agency, they are support. They will come too – later. Your plan is your script for what you want to have happen. Plan those first few hours well. FEMA has some great resources to help residents and businesses prepare for the worst. Make sure your community is aware of them and how to access them. Start by referring them to this Website: http://www.ready.gov/