Just One More Thing

By Jim Mullen
Emergency Management, Once Removed

As the Washington State Legislative Session kicked off, the Seattle Times listed several topics that were the highest priorities for consideration. They were, in no apparent order: K-12 funding; Special Education; Climate Change; Opioids and Behavioral Health; and Public Records (a Seattle Times’ fixation).

Each seems worthy of attention. Missing, however is call for a thorough review of the potential for a major or catastrophic disaster and the efforts and resources currently committed to dealing with them. Local and State governments are far too dependent upon the federal government to assist in the response and the recovery from a significant event, like an earthquake.

The Seattle Times priority list is as noted, solid, but incomplete. No matter where in the process of resolution these issues might be at the time of a disaster, the scope of a large earthquake will eclipse each and every one of these priorities for days, weeks, months or longer after a major or catastrophic disaster occurs. While they will not recede in importance and may even be exacerbated as issues following an earthquake, the consequences of a disruption in commerce, communications and human services as well as housing and public safety take center stage. Issues that have been ignored, like seismic safety of the school buildings in which children are compelled by law to enter will be paramount. And the question “you knew this could happen, what did you do in advance” won’t be answered by listing the priorities decision makers already were struggling with.

Has anyone asked the Directors of the large municipal emergency management agencies, or their counterparts in large counties, what gaps must be filled to achieve optimum capability? Sustained, incremental progress could be the objective. Questions of the state’s excellent Emergency Management team might elicit an understanding of their staffing shortfalls, and unattended programmatic priorities. The state legislature should step in if the state’s executive branch, preoccupied as it appears to be with issues in Iowa and New Hampshire, abrogates its responsibility in this area.

The BIG ONE might not happen this legislative session – but that is not a reprieve from disaster, it’s an invitation to accelerate our efforts, in the public and private sector, to minimize the consequences of a devastating event through planning, exercising and filling programmatic gaps. Let’s set up a rolling state recovery fund, an emergency management grant program for all local emergency management agencies to draw upon and increase the state’s annual financial commitment specifically to its Emergency Management Division (just so no one in the Military Department hierarchy gets confused as to its purpose).

It isn’t certain that this session any of the five priorities of the Seattle Times Editorial Board will have a satisfactory resolution, or even make any real progress towards resolution, important as they are. Progress can be this year achieved in local and state emergency readiness, with a relatively small investment that is sustained year after year. It’s time that made the priority list.

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