Moving Forward, Looking Back / Getting us through emergencies
How resilient are you? How we respond to the steady stream of challenges life throws at us has received increasing attention as a major determinant of a successful life. Whether it's dealing with tomato sauce on your shirt, a fender-bender or the loss of your job, resilient people find a way to adapt, recover and move ahead.
Even the highest level of individual resilience, however, is no match for large-scale natural or man-made emergencies, and this is when we rely on the resilience of our communities to see us through.
Exactly one year ago, Tropical Storm Irene ravaged the east coast, handing Fairfield its share of damage and disruption from flooding and downed trees.
So: Who called for the timely evacuation of the beach neighborhoods? Who set up the shelter at Fairfield Ludlowe High School that housed almost 100 citizens and a number of pets? Who arranged for the thousands of bottles of water and snacks to be distributed from a parking lot on Black Rock Turnpike? Who coordinated the tree removal to allow UI access to damaged power lines?
The answer: Fairfield's emergency response system, under the "unified command" of a team of key town officials. Led by the fire chief, who serves as the official emergency management director, the team can efficiently deploy the town's personnel and resources in an emergency, request help from other towns, or provide help to them.
The basic manpower comes from police, fire, public works, and health departments but gets crucial support from two civilian volunteer organizations. The Civilian Emergency Response Team is a highly-trained group of volunteers who can provide a range of functions in an emergency, from setting up shelters to directing traffic at emergency immunization clinics. The Medical Reserve Corps provides medical and non-medical support to emergency shelters, immunization clinics, or other public health efforts. Both of these groups meet regularly and participate in training exercises with town personnel to keep their skills and readiness at a high level. Effective community responses to serious emergencies can happen only through planning and preparation.
There are more than 3,400 local CERTs and almost 1,000 local MRC units around the country, each springing from different branches of the federal government's emergency preparedness and homeland security agencies. Let me run it down for you, but you might want to grab a cup of coffee first.
CERTs are coordinated through the Citizen Corps, which is under the aegis of Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is an office of the Department of Homeland Security. The Surgeon General's Office of the Department of Health and Human Services houses the Division of Civilian Volunteer Medical Reserve Corps, of which there are 10 regions nationally. DCVMRC, informally known as the MRC Program Office, coordinates the creation of CERTs in 10 national regions. We're in Region 1.
Got that? OK, then, let's move on to the state.
The Connecticut Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection has six divisions, one of which is the Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security. You can think of DEMHS as Connecticut's FEMA. DEMHS has five regions (we're in Region 1 in the state, too), each overseen by a Regional Emergency Planning Team. Each REPT allocates available federal and state funds for planning and operations, and maintains close ties to other REPTs.
Not done with the state yet.
Each REPT has a number of Emergency Service Function committees that report up to the REPT. Our REPT has about 20 ESF committees. Examples: public health, sheltering and mass feeding, communications. The ESF's in Region 1 meet monthly. Our REPT decided to use funds to provide each of its 14 towns with a trailer containing 100 cots and other equipment to set up a shelter or perform other emergency functions.
My point in outlining all this structure is not to be a bureaucracy whistle-blower. Far from it -- the bureaucratic intensity reflects the behind-the-scenes complexity in designing and operationalizing a system to respond to anything from a power outage to bioterrorism. Irene was a cakewalk compared to Sept. 11, Hurricane Katrina, or Deepwater Horizon, but it still required diligent planning and crisp decision-making to get Fairfield back on its feet as soon as possible.
As a member of our local Fairfield-Easton MRC called into duty for Irene, I was struck by the gratitude of people who used the shelter, or who got water from the distribution station on Black Rock Turnpike. I was equally struck by their surprise that the town could make that happen.
All emergency responses begin and end locally, but behind the local effort are state and federal agencies giving invaluable support. As confusing as it seems at first glance, our town officials understand how it all comes together to give Fairfield high marks for resilience. Next time you see a CERT or MRC volunteer, give them a hug. They make us all a little more resilient.
Ron Blumenfeld is a Fairfield writer and retired pediatrician. His "Moving Forward, Looking Back" appears every other Wednesday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.