Emergency planning is critical for municipal resiliency

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Safety risks to municipalities and residents today are infinite. A catastrophic event, ranging from an active shooter at a school or town hall to a major weather event, can occur at any moment.
 
Municipal preparedness and resiliency in the face of unpredictability is critical. Town managers, mayors, selectmen, and other municipal leaders have the responsibility of making important decisions regarding infrastructure investments, emergency response systems, and personnel before, during and after these events.
 
Active shooter incidents in the U.S. continue to rise in frequency, according to FBI data, with 20 such events in both 2014 and 2015 – more than any two-year average in the past 16 years. About 80 percent of shootings take place at workplaces, with 24 percent happening at schools and 10 percent at government sites.
 
In addition to shooting incidents, municipalities are at risk of extreme weather events such as hurricanes, tornadoes and floods, workplace violence, bomb threats, cyberattacks, and other emergency situations.
 
With a plan in place for how to deal with such events, municipalities are set up to be more resilient in the aftermath.
 
Planning and response strategies
MIIA recently held a series of three regional conferences around the state to bring municipal leaders together to share best practices and strategies related to safety and security. Each meeting featured different speakers and panel discussions, but the key takeaway was similar: it is critical to have protocols and plans in place for how to respond if the worst were to occur.
 
In Westford on March 22, Juliette Kayyem, a national leader in homeland security who served in the Obama administration and as a security advisor for former Gov. Deval Patrick, spoke about how the homeland security landscape translates to the local level, with hometown safety and local risks.
 
Kayyem discussed how strategies for emergency response have changed over the last two decades, evolving from a post-9/11 focus on counterterrorism and prevention to a focus on “response, recovery, and resiliency” after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
 
She urged local leaders to consider the elements of a “resilient society,” including redundancies in systems, flexibility, “fail-safe” systems, and the ability to rebound rapidly, learn and build anew.
 
Cities and towns should look closely at investments in infrastructure, and train responders based on the likelihood of an event occurring, she said. For example, communities could hold tabletop training exercises focused on response strategies for an active shooter in a school or public area, or for weather-related events.
 
An inter-departmental panel from Westford provided details on specific practices the town is implementing, ranging from panic buttons and window enhancements at Town Hall, to holding parent reunification drills at schools and taking comprehensive cybersecurity measures across all town departments.
 
“We want our residents to know that we got this,” said Westford Town Manager Jodi Ross. “We will do everything we can to prevent something from happening, and if it happens then we will be there to respond effectively and take care of it.”
 
At a conference in Northampton on March 9, Mayor David Narkewicz emphasized the importance of planning and safety, particularly in the workplace.
 
His city has rolled out a formal employee safety plan that emphasizes guidelines for dealing with an active shooter situation in the municipal workplace (including schools), as well as how to train and communicate with employees to ensure the information is disseminated across departments. Northampton police officer Rebecca Mazuch and mayoral aide Cyndi Roberge shared details about the plan, which includes lockdown procedures, evacuation plans, bomb threat response, and medical emergency guidelines.
 
In Plymouth on March 29, Massachusetts State Police Major Christopher Mason, director of the Commonwealth Fusion Center, provided a state perspective on security issues, along with Kurt Schwartz, director of the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, and Hans Olson, assistant undersecretary of Homeland Security and senior advisor on antiterrorism and cybersecurity for the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security.
 
Mason said the Fusion Center is the focal point in Massachusetts for gathering criminal and terrorism threat information, and he urged local reporting of any suspicious activities. The Fusion Center has often coordinated with local officials on bomb threats in particular, he said.
 
Olson covered relatively new threats related to cybersecurity and highlighted steps the state is taking to address them.
 
Schwartz said MEMA is the go-to agency for disaster response and has multiple planning and preparedness initiatives in place.
 
During the Plymouth and Westford meetings, Sudbury Police Chief Scott Nix discussed response strategies in schools as well as townwide. He shared Sudbury’s options-based protocol for employee response to an event – which promotes making the choice of whether to run, hide or fight based on the situation – to be used in schools, across town departments and even in local businesses, churches and synagogues. He said the town is continually looking at lessons learned from reunification drills and other activities – reassessing plans, then reassessing again.
 
Taking action
Having a plan in place for response – even small steps that are budget conscious – is crucial. Smaller municipalities can look at tactical options such as doorstops for school classrooms and upgrades to window locks that could slow down an intruder.
 
In any city or town, departments can partner to brainstorm, develop and implement plans. Bordering cities and towns can also partner to provide support in terms of emergency responders and resources.
 
Taking action to put a plan in place – pulling from the best practices available – is key to ensuring a more responsive, resilient community.
 
Lin Chabra is MIIA’s Membership Training Coordinator.