Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Blue Cell Intel Summary, Vol. 1 Issue 6

Hazard Vulnerability Assessment: A Community Effort

“Hazard mitigation is any sustained action taken to reduce or eliminate the longterm risk to human life and property from hazards. Mitigation activities may be implemented prior to, during, or after an incident. However, it has been demonstrated that hazard mitigation is most effective when based on an inclusive, comprehensive, longterm plan that is developed before a disaster occurs. “ (Federal Emergency Management Agency, Local MultiHazard Mitigation Planning Guidance, July 1, 2008.) The process of assessing and mitigating all possible hazards and risks within an agency, city, or region is a critical task that must be undertaken by all communities. It must be performed by all the agencies and businesses within those communities; if local risks and hazards are not assessed critically and cross-jurisdictionally, community members and response agencies will not be able to work together to plan, prepare for, or mitigating against the probable hazards they face. There is a direct increase in losses incurred after a disaster if planning and preparedness efforts have not occurred. Calculating the type of impact each hazard will have on the community and speculating outcomes in terms of personal safety, loss of infrastructure, loss of life, business continuity, and other areas allows leaders within the community to outline plans to mitigate against these risks, determine priorities within the community, and increase the effectiveness of response actions in times of need.

Over the past ten years our nation has seen over 597 federally declared disasters, ranging from severe storms and flooding, to wildfires, hurricanes, tornados, snowstorms, and many other disasters. Major hurricanes such as Rita and Katrina wreaked havoc on communities within the United States, killing hundreds and leaving thousands displaced, while also costing billions in damage in Louisiana, Florida, Mississippi and Alabama. The cost and devastation of disasters increases exponentially when little mitigation or planning has occurred pre-disaster. If individual communities, counties, regions, and states could begin working together to create comprehensive disaster mitigation and response plans, actual prioritization of mitigation tasks could be viewed as a joint effort amongst all agencies. A community wide assessment of local hazards, risks and vulnerabilities, including local or state Emergency Management, Fire and Rescue agencies, Law Enforcement, EMS, Public Health, Hospitals, other Healthcare partners such as home health and hospice, non-profit and volunteer agencies, private industry and business, community members, and any other stakeholders within the area, is the only way to address all the probable risks each of these groups or agencies may face. When individual agencies share their hazard analysis with each other and cooperate in their planning efforts to ensure each individual plan integrates into all other local response plans, lives, structures, infrastructure, sensitive eco systems, and economic losses could be minimized.

By working together to address potential hazards for each of these individual agencies, everyone is able to understand why each individual has different priorities and an overall situational awareness becomes apparent pre-event. This pre-disaster cooperation will clear up confusion during an incident response and allow communities to understand what plans are in place, what type of response will occur, and what expectations there are for each agency and as a community. The necessity to integrate the planning and decision making process not only with response agencies, but to also include community members, cannot be over exaggerated. These populations must have a greater understanding of how their community functions, how to reach the largest populations quickly, and where vulnerable populations live and work. They will offer valuable insight into how impacts of disaster will affect their community, and individuals within that network. They are also hungry for knowledge of planning efforts, and the more informed and prepared the public, the better chance of survival and a quicker transition from response to recovery.

 Planning can’t occur in a vacuum, it must evolve into a process that is inclusive of all stakeholders. Hazards and risks must be prioritized based on impact to all sectors, and work that occurs to mitigate impacts should be done using a cross-sector approach. Emergency managers are well aware of the need to assess risks and hazards within their city or county, but do not necessarily share this information with other groups or agencies within their community. The same can be said about many organizations; risk assessments may occur within an agency, but the collected data is not disseminated to the community. For example, hospitals are required to perform their own annual internal assessment of risk as a requirement of the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JHACO). However, it is a little known fact that JHACO also requires them to share their highest prioritized hazards with response agencies in their community and work with them to collectively develop an integrated response strategy.

This cross-sector sharing of hazard and vulnerabilities from one agency to another is not occurring in most counties or regions within Colorado, and is not on a large enough scale if it is occurring to some degree. Because Colorado is such a diverse state, geographically and in population, hazards and risks vary greatly throughout; response capabilities and available resources change rapidly as you move across our great terrain. Impacts of certain hazards and the priorities for hazard mitigation planning are viewed very differently region to region. Utilizing a collaborative approach for hazard assessment and planning helps create a valuable prioritization of resources within each region. Local response capabilities will be enhanced tremendously, community assets will be evenly distributed through plans in place pre-disaster, and dialogue about community risks will allow for a foundation of a resilient community. This will greatly reduce the impact of hazards and risks and help decrease individual disruptions in services and within critical infrastructure, continuity of business will be facilitated, and communities will become resilient while also self sustaining in times of disaster. It is crucial that state and local government begin to work together with community partners in preparedness from both the private, non-profit, industry, and community to truly create integrated plans for improving abilities to respond to disaster. When planning occurs collaboratively, every stakeholder is allowed input and all plans are created with one mission in mind; the safety and security of our communities in times of disaster, and the improved ability of responders and leaders to quickly assess and handle a disaster response when disaster occurs.

Nicole Cantrell
Exercise Specialist, The Blue Cell, LLC