How do we prepare for the unpredictable and the unknown? That is what emergency preparedness planners do every day. They study past disasters to understand how earthquakes, tornadoes and floods affected us in the past. They evaluate how well we responded. They analyze how we can improve and even simulate disaster scenarios. They can never know for certain what will happen tomorrow or how we will respond to it. So they model potential disasters and create plans to minimize their impact. These are people who live my question.
I met with five people from Utah County whose job includes preparing us for future emergencies: Chris Blinzinger, Emergency Coordinator City of Provo; Ron Tobler, Emergency Coordinator Utah County Health Department; Jan Rogers, Utah County Medical/Surgical Coordinator; Marilyn Watts, Utah County Medical Rescue Commissioner; and Joanne Larsen, Emergency Manager for the City of Orem.
Chris described the primary objective of emergency preparedness. “How are we going to ensure continuity of our community in the event of disaster – continuity of individual health, essentials services, and government? We do it through partnerships of existing community resources. The governmental representatives coordinate NGO’s, the military, and faith based organizations.”
At one level, discussing emergency preparedness in Utah doesn’t make much sense. Utah doesn’t experience hurricanes, tornadoes, or even many earthquakes. Only Wyoming has fewer disasters within our United States. The biggest public health issue is an increased level of lung cancer due to radon and the ramifications of having a very young population (36% of people in Utah Country are under 18). However, Jan reminded us how Utah’s Mormon founders placed a high priority on preparing for the unknown. “Our grandfathers were really prepared. They were driven from their homes, came here, and built Utah from nothing. They chose the beehive as our state symbol – cooperation and industry. They handed this tradition down to us.”
Mock simulations of disaster events are often used to test emergency preparedness plans. Last March Utah County ran a ‘plane down’ simulation that modeled a mass casualty incident with police, fire departments, and hospitals. They’ve also run earthquake exercises. An alternative approach is to use actual events to test strategies. “We model our evacuation plans on the flows we observe from mass events. 500,000 people attend Provo’s Freedom Fest. Sixty thousand people exit the stadium after every BYU football game. These are excellent simulations of mass movement, which is an important part of emergency planning. We also learned a lot from the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics, which was a logistical feat.”
Funding and maintaining emergency preparedness staff is an ongoing challenge: they are not seen as essential until an emergency occurs. Chris and Joanne are the only two full-time emergency preparedness staff among all the cities in the county. The three country officials are all federally funded, and federal funding varies with the country’s mood. As Marilyn put it, “Money flows when anthrax or Ebola are in the news. Then we forget and the funding disappears.”
By definition, emergency preparedness means responding to unusual conditions. But it can also be a catalyst for community building. Jan described a coalition of hospitals, who often compete for patients and dollars, which works together in mass casualty situations. Joanne described a citizen acounting program in Orem that strives to account for each of the city’s 100,000 residents, in person, within 2-1/2 hours of an emergency. It’s essentially a pyramid scheme of neighborhood groups, with captains responsible for a small number of people. In the event of an emergency, they will congregate (often at the location of the weakest link, the elderly or infirm), send a runner to the next size group up the chain, and continue in succeeding levels until a full accounting for everyone is made.
“The program began in Bishop, a small town in Utah County. Scaling it to Orem is a challenge, but if it can happen anywhere, it can happen here. The LDS (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) community is very large in Orem, well organized, and behind our effort. They are committed to making it a success.” If the model succeeds in Orem, it could be applied to communities even without the inherent cohesion the Mormon’s provide.
How will we live tomorrow?
“We are on a trajectory. We are going to keep doing what we have done. We have to help people realize that we are dependent on each person in the community. It is hard to get people to commit to things that may never happen. Each individual has to put energy into an unknown activity.” – Marilyn
“We will start small, take care of our family and neighbors and move out from there.” – Jan
“Life is meant to be lived. I am always in search of the next adventure. We get skewed, as emergency management personnel; into thinking that everything can go wrong. But mostly the bad things don’t happen. I am healthy and looking forward to adventure.” – Chris