"Rural Emergency Preparedness and Response" with Waldo County EMA

When emergencies happen in rural communities, the demands on local response agencies and healthcare facilities can quickly consume available resources. Robin was joined by Dale Rowley, Director of Waldo County Emergency Management Agency in Maine to hear about his first-hand experiences of effectively providing support and leadership in rural disaster preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation.

Location

Waldo County is located in Maine. Currently, the population stands at about 39,600 people. Waldo County’s county seat is Belfast, which has a population of about 6,500 people. The county has an area of about 840 square miles and it is about 85% rugged forestland. Most residents commune to cities in other counties for work.

Common incidents in Waldo County

Waldo County’s biggest incidents are generally winter storms and summer storms. Wind storms can also bring trees down which tend to block off roads and bring down power lines. Luckily, they don’t deal with earthquakes and their flooding is never too serious since they’re on high terrain. They still deal with their share of minor hazmat incidents and small mass casualty incidents.

Generally, their most common incidents are road damage due to storm flooding, downed trees, and downed power lines.

Dealing with power loss during a storm

Loss of power has its biggest impact on the county when it occurs during the Winter when it’s cold. It becomes a real issue when people cannot heat their homes and access running water. About 80% of Waldo County’s residents are connected to water from wells, rather than a city water system which means they will likely not have the ability to pump the well water.

Typically, Waldo County works with the Red Cross to set up shelters at local schools during a power cut. All of the schools have their own generators. Individual towns can also set up their own warming centers at the town office or town library.

Coordinating at state, county, and town level

Maine is unique as it has both county government and municipal government, most US states generally have one or the other. Maine has 26 towns that all have the ability to set their own ordinances. There is also a county government that acts as a regional government, however, the county government does not have oversight over land use or roads, etc. as those are all decided at the town level. Each town has its own fire department and a few towns also have their own ambulance department.

At the town level, all of the firefighters and emergency managers are volunteers. Dale is the first level of a full-time emergency manager at Waldo County. The towns are generally quite self-sufficient but the county is responsible for three important services:

1. The Communications Center

The county runs the only communications/ dispatch center. All fire, police, and EMS services are dispatched from this one facility that the county runs.

2. Fulltime EMA staff and the county EOC

The county is responsible for receiving updates from each of the towns and feeding them back out to the other towns during an emergency.

3. The Sheriff’s Office

The Sherriff’s Office is the police department for 23 of the 26 towns. It is located in Belfast and it is run by the county. The Sheriff’s Department is in the same building as the EMA and the Communications Center is right next door.

The staff vehicle

The staff vehicle is not only used for general transport by the EMA but it is also used as a first response vehicle. Dale can be called out 24/7 to hazmat incidents or any other local mass casualty incident to coordinate it.

Waldo EMA Jeep (1)

Civil defense at Waldo County

The phrase civil defense isn’t very commonly used in emergency management in the US but it is part of Maine’s history. Civil defense was originally created for the nuclear war threats in the 1940s. This involved people in the community monitoring radiation levels with Geiger counters and reporting them back. Then in the 1960s natural disaster type emergencies came to the forefront. Threats developed throughout the years from to hazmat incidents and terrorist incidents, etc.

Maine Emergency Management was called Maine Civil Defense until 1973, they then became Maine Civil Emergency Preparedness, and then in the late ’80s they became Maine Emergency Management.

What I like about civil defense is that it’s very much about personal preparedness.

Dale Rowley, Director, Waldo County Emergency Management Agency.

Dale talked about how important personal preparedness is in a rural community. In a county with 39,600 people and just two full-time emergency managers, it’s extremely important for communities to be prepared and have the ability to be self-sufficient during an emergency.

Training and exercises

Since the majority of the EMA’s staff are volunteers they hold trainings frequently. The EMA generally holds tabletop exercises in the evenings, and field exercises at the weekends to facilitate the volunteer’s work schedules.

Pictured below is an after-action review meeting at a local scout camp. This was after they ran a search and rescue exercise at the scout camp. It was the perfect location for the exercise because of its location in a forested area, as well as having cabin shelters for the incident management teams. The exercise involved the game wardens, the forestry department, state police, and incident managers from all over the state.

Waldo County training

The mobile command post

The EMA’s mobile command post contains a large amount of communications equipment as well as stationary like pencils and clipboards. The shelves within the mobile command vehicle are kept extremely organized with every item of equipment being tracked in D4H Equipment Management. Items are nested on the software within bags within shelves and can be easily tracked and updated.

Waldo County Command vehicle

How tourism impacts the EMA

Bad weather is the county’s biggest issue and it mainly occurs in the winter, however, the summer period does bring its own set of challenges. With tourism increasing in the summertime so too do incidents such as car accidents. Waldo County doesn’t tend to be too badly impacted, but their adjoining county, Hancock County, has Bar Harbour which is internationally known for Acadia National Park. In the summertime, two to three million people travel to Hancock County.

Acadia national park 2021 08 29 08 39 56 utc (1)

Using IPAWS for public alerting

At the county, they use FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert & Warning System (IPAWS) for wireless emergency alerts. Just last week, Waldo County EMA put out the state of Maine’s very first real-world IPAWS alert when their 911 calling system went down. The outage lasted for about two hours and the EMA used the public alert to give residents an alternative phone number to call for emergencies.

IPAWS sends out emergency messages to all mobile phones within a selected area. The EMA puts out a 90 character message and a 360 character version of the message. Older phones will receive the 90 character version and newer phones receive the 360 character version.

How Waldo County EMA uses D4H

Waldo County EMA uses D4H Incident Management for centrally managing all of their emergencies. It works very well for each of the 26 towns within the county as they might not have their own EOC. They can still log into the county level’s virtual D4H EOC to get a full picture of the incident and receive updates in real-time.

I love that we can create status boards on the fly. In some emergencies, we have created our own brand new status boards to track information specific to that incident. Until COVID-19, we never thought that we’d have to track PPE. That was something that we were able to easily build out in the software. Anyone can go in and update their information and that’s been huge. In the past, it was all telephone calls and faxing in information.”

Dale Rowley, Director, Waldo County Emergency Management Agency.

Dale has built out several staus boards in the EMA’s D4H Incident Management account. The status board that gets used the most is their ‘Roads and Utilities Board’. They use this to track the location of where trees have come down on the roads during a storm and whether there are power lines down at that location. The public works companies cannot clear the trees if they are wrapped up in wires, so the EMA then coordinates with private utility companies to have the wires cleared first. During a large storm, the EMA can actually bring the utility company into the incident in D4H Incident Management and have them add their updates directly into the software so that everyone is kept on the same page at all times.

Some of the other status boards that the EMA has built out include status boards to track casualties, resource requests, critical facilities, and gas stations.

We use the log in D4H a lot too. It’s great to be able to just ping an individual or attach a photo. It comes in really handy.”

Dale Rowley, Director, Waldo County Emergency Management Agency.

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