Disaster Preparedness & Recovery

What It’s Like to Run a One-Person Department

Most rural emergency managers lack resources and staff but still must prepare for the worst.

Small jurisdictions rely on community members to aid preparedness and response activities. Photo courtesy of Michael Raphael/FEMA

From drawing up emergency plans and coordinating projects to establishing relationships with first responders, the tasks of preparing and educating a county population about what to do when disaster strikes can be overwhelming, even with the resources and staff to do it. But in most small jurisdictions in remote areas of the U.S., one person is commonly charged with doing all of that and with very few resources.

But these emergency managers survive and even thrive by embracing collaboration and taking the challenge of doing more with less in rural communities head-on. For example, in Wilkin County, Minn., which has a population of just under 6,600, Emergency Management Director Breanna Koval depends on her colleagues in surrounding counties for all facets of her job. She explained that because of her location in west central Minnesota, almost all the counties are one-person shops and they stay in constant contact with one another.

“On a daily basis we’re always asking one another questions on how we do things,” Koval said. “What agencies we’re talking to, contacts for agencies, how things were accomplished.”

That sense of togetherness seems to echo throughout many of the one-person emergency management offices in remote areas. The general sentiment among emergency managers in those situations is one of resolve to get the job done and lean on one another for support.

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Dave Rogness, emergency services coordinator of Cass County, N.D., called his job “all about relationships.” He’s responsible for emergency plans and response activities for 27 incorporated cities and 52 townships in Cass County. The only city not in Rogness’ purview is Fargo, which has its own emergency manager. The two operate under a joint powers agreement, so when one person is out of town, the other is on call.

Rogness coordinates with 17 fire departments, along with a variety of ambulance units and law enforcement personnel.

“We try to involve as many of those entities as we can, because frankly, I have no staff,” Rogness said. “It’s me and a secretary that I share with some other folks, and I really have no resources either. I have no equipment to be able to train or respond or do any of those kinds of things.”

Establishing Priorities

Resource-challenged emergency managers must find alternative means to get projects done. From establishing volunteer groups to prioritizing the workload, many said it’s a balancing act to keep a location as prepared for a disaster as it should be.

Tricia Kriel, emergency manager of Ransom County, N.D., which has a population of approximately 5,400, keeps it simple. What she works on during a week depends on what’s the most pressing need at the time. If there’s a flood, everything else gets pushed to the side until the entire emergency period is over. Her approach is mimicked by many of her colleagues in one-person shops.

Doug McGillivray, former emergency manager of Yamhill County, Ore., took an organized but basic approach to his job. He kept a simple white board in his office listing all the projects he was working on in one column, and all the activities he wanted to be involved in, in another column.

McGillivray said people would be amazed by how many items from each column switched places during a year. He retired last October, but called his old job a “tap dance” regarding priorities. Koval agreed with that assessment and said that like McGillivray, she’s big on lists. At any given time, she has a checklist of tasks she’s identified as her priorities for a week, month or quarter, and works off of it.

“What’s a priority this afternoon may not be tomorrow morning — things change,” McGillivray said. “The important [projects] get done, those of less importance, they languish, but we pay attention to them as we can.”

Outreach Activities

Community engagement is a critical factor for preparedness in small jurisdictions. From coordinating volunteer groups to connecting with the public online through social media, getting people to sit up and take notice about what needs to be done in their neighborhoods could make a big difference in the event of a disaster.

Rickey Jaggers, director of the Pontotoc County Emergency Management Agency in Mississippi, (population of nearly 30,000) drawsheavily on volunteers throughout his jurisdiction. While Jaggers is responsible for drafting all the emergency management plans for the municipalities and schools in the county, when an emergency happens, people are ready to pitch in and help.

The county operates off 15 specific functions to staff its EOC, and Jaggers has volunteers for all of them. He’s currently training new people to be backups, so that the county is two-deep for every position.

McGillivray has found enormous success with volunteers as well. When he took the job with Yamhill County in December 2008, he placed a priority on building up the county’s Community Emergency Response Team. It now has more than 400 members, including 25 volunteers that are licensed amateur radio operators.

According to Rogness, one of the advantages when working in a small or remote county is citizens realize that during an emergency, everyone is expected to lend a helping hand. He said his biggest priorities are behind-the-scenes tasks and networking to make sure everyone is on the same page about what to do during a disaster.

From business owners to schools and nonprofit organizations, Rogness said all entities have a role to play. While it’s still primarily a volunteer-based system, it works and helps Rogness get his job done before, during and after an emergency.

For example, during flooding, the county’s universities, high schools and junior high schools are activated to fill and place sandbags. That stems from Rogness’ relationships with school superintendents. The schools provide the students, transportation and staff members to assist and coordinate the groups.

Brian Heaton  | 

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines from 2011 to mid-2015.

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