It’s the most powerful local government group you’ve never heard of, and it convened this morning. It’s Flagler County Executive Policy Group.
Most people know, at least by name or title, every member of the group: the county administrator and the county’s three city managers, the school superintendent, the county attorney, the county health department director, the sheriff, the mayors of Palm Coast and Flagler Beach, and the county’s emergency management director. (Some Florida counties such as Sumter include the chairman of their county commission and fire chiefs. Flagler does not.)
What most people don’t know is that in a serious emergency—a hurricane, a cataclysmic tornado, wildfires like those in 2011, a train derailment, a terrorist attack—most decisions that affect the immediate fate of the county’s 100,000 residents rests in the hands of that Executive Policy Group. That’s the entity that declares countywide emergencies and decides, for example, what areas to evacuate, whom to shelter, what roads and bridges to close, and so on.
By law, all executive orders must pass through the group. The group may also, by law, delegate emergency authority to the county’s Emergency Management director—in Flagler’s case, Kevin Guthrie, who’s raised the profile of his division of county government by making it the stand-by nerve center of any potential emergency, large or small (Guthrie was present at a minor hazardous spill on U.S. 1 two weeks ago, coordinating local and state agencies.) “Until that governing board says we’re going to declare a local emergency, I have no authority,” he said, although the executive policy group must itself ratify its own decisions through its members’ respective boards–the county commission, the city councils and commissions, the school board.
The Flagler County Commission last declared a countywide emergency in August 2008 in response to tropical storm Fay, which crisscrossed over Florida after making landfall in New Smyrna Beach. The order gave the county administrator, and, in his absence, the Emergency Services Director, authority “to take all actions necessary and appropriate to protect human life and property, including the promulgation of rules and orders as may be necessary subject to the limitations of” Florida law.
The policy group met this morning but only for a training session, just as, the evening before at the Emergency Operations Center, 18 local elected officials and the county administrator gathered for a two-hour training session led by Guthrie to better understand the extent and limits of their role in an emergency. And to become more familiar with what Guthrie describes as the Flagler Unified Emergency Operations Center.”
The idea is to ensure that not only plans but individual leadership roles are effectively honed ahead and in case of an emergency, understanding that the policy group and the Emergency Operations Center all kick in at that level extremely rarely.
This morning, the policy group’s drill scenario was a hurricane. The officials were faced with deciding whether to evacuate the beaches and open shelters, and figuring out how fast they could get it all done. Public perception has it that shelters can be readied almost immediately or evacuation orders given on the spot. Not so. It can take up to 24 hours to prepare shelters, for example.
Guthrie point-blank asked every executive this morning what type of resources they’d need to shelter 2,000 people and carry pout an evacuation. They all said they had sufficient if not surplus resources to get those things done. “That surprised me to a certain degree because most counties are not capable of doing that on their own,” Guthrie said. And Patrick Johnson the health department director, cautioned that the department doesn’t have enough personnel to fully staff a special needs shelter. “We have a stop-gap in place through Flagler County Medical Reserve Corps,” a group of volunteer nurses and doctors, “who will come in and volunteer in a disaster like that,” Guthrie said.
Otherwise, the executive group did well in its drill, in Guthrie’s assessment. “We had some of the discussions you’d expect to have about how fast we could open up shelter, how long does it take to evacuate the beaches, what is the absolute drop-dead time that we have to make decisions by.” He noted: “Do we always have room for improvement? I believe so.” Inter-agency communications can be improved, as can getting the message out, whatever the emergency. “But we are prepared for hurricane season, I’m confident of that, we are prepared.” Hurricane season begins June 1 and lasts until Nov. 1.
The training sessions are required by law to secure $170,000 in federal grant dollars which, matched with an equal amount from local tax dollars, help run the county’s emergency operations center. But training of the sort has generally been wanting in the county. Guthrie said this morning’s drill-type training had not been done in “a very long time.” Monday’s gathering was replicated a year ago, and was better attended in 2014, causing Guthrie again to implore officials to participate more regularly. Only Bunnell’s mayor, Catherine Robinson, represented her city. Palm Coast, Flagler Beach and the county were well represented, and two constitutional officers—the tax collector and the property appraiser—showed up, but the sheriff did not (though he was at this morning’s session).
Monday’s session was an overview of the so-called incident command system, a federally designed template for the management of emergencies large and small that was developed in the wake of the September 2001 terrorist attacks. Incident command structures are instituted routinely even at minor vehicle crashes, though at that level they may involve a mere fire lieutenant in command and perhaps one or two other entities. A more serious emergency could involve a half dozen agencies and jurisdictions, again with an incident commander in charge. Large-scale emergencies replicate the system on a bigger scale, with the executive policy group eventually playing a role.
All along the goal is to ensure seamless management of whatever emergency is at hand. “The last thing we want to do is duplicate effort,” Guthrie said, though he repeatedly returned to a theme that needs work in the county: “institutionalizing” the notion of a unity of command. As a more concrete example than a theoretical emergency, he spoke of the annual 4th of July events in Flagler Beach: the same command structure is in place to manage a large-scale operation. “All of us come together to solve that problem. That’s what we need from you to address a disaster,” Guthrie said.