Crisis preparedness report cites communication needs

The biggest challenge facing Western North Carolina emergency responders during times of crisis is inadequate communication among agencies at the local, state and federal levels, a problem often exacerbated by antiquated equipment and a lack of communication interoperability.

That was among the findings in a policy report issued Tuesday, Dec. 11, by Western Carolina University’s Public Policy Institute and based on input from participants at a statewide summit titled “Emergency Management and Disaster Leadership Preparedness in the 21st Century.”

More than 400 people took part in the summit at WCU’s Ramsey Regional Activity Center on Nov. 17, sharing best practice strategies for responding to disasters and helping develop policy recommendations to serve as a roadmap for disaster leadership preparedness.

“Our first-line responders indicated a need for more sharing of information and for improved communication between local, state and federal officials,” said Gordon Mercer, director of the PPI. “Participants at the summit also identified as a top priority the need for state-of-the-art communications systems that work in the mountain terrain of Western North Carolina, which presents unique challenges in communication and transportation, especially during a time of emergency.”

Another significant problem identified by summit participants is a lack of disaster preparedness training for elected officials and emergency personnel, Mercer said.

“The need for continual preparation and training in exercises that involve action-based drills for responders seems to be a top priority,” he said. “It was suggested that more drills need to be held that are related to natural disasters, pandemic flu and terrorism. Furthermore, some of these exercises need to be statewide and multi-state activities because emergencies and disasters often occur over an extensive geographical range, involving multiple jurisdictions.”

The policy report also calls for taking steps to create a culture of preparedness on the part of the general public, as well as governmental agencies. “Participants at the summit recommended that more resources need to be committed to public education to help citizens become better prepared for dealing with emergencies and disasters,” Mercer said. “We also need to do a better job of helping businesses, churches and civic organizations understand their responsibilities during a time of disaster.”

Creating a culture of preparedness also includes involving local officials more in planning for future resources, training and personnel requirements, he said. “Participants think that a culture of preparedness means that more mutual planning and more resources must be allocated to deal with future challenges in the emergency and disaster area,” he said. “For citizens, it means having the preparedness equipment, knowledge and supplies that are needed during the first 72 hours after a disaster or emergency occurs. And creating a culture of preparedness among our citizens will require cooperation between government, nonprofits and the media.”

Summit participants believe North Carolina’s greatest disaster threat comes in the form of hurricanes, tornadoes and flooding, followed by pandemic flu, drought and terrorism.

The entire policy report can be found on the WCU Public Policy Institute Web site.

The PPI was founded in 1999 to study issues of importance to Western North Carolina, the state and nation, and to assist in the planning and development of policy issues to address those issues. For more information, call (828) 227-2086.