Local Emergency Planning was Inadequate at East Palestine, OH

by admin on March 21, 2023

Norfolk Southern Railroad train wreck involved the release of highly toxic chemicals

Ohio Train Derailment Raises Questions about Local Disaster Planning Across the USA

From the Author ~ Michael Barrick, Appalachian Chronicle, March 12, 2023

EAST PALESTINE, OHIO – As the people of East Palestine attempt to put their lives back together following the crash of a Norfolk Southern freight train full of hazardous chemicals in their tiny community on Feb. 3, 2023, politicians have expressed outrage. Lacking initiative, though, little if nothing will result from the faux anger of the politicians owned by corporate interests. So, it’s up to the local citizens to start asking some tough questions if they hope to have their community recover from this tragedy.

In short, the last people needed in East Palestine are politicians. They are simply in the way of rescue and recovery efforts. What the citizens do need is greater awareness of how prepared local emergency response officials were for this predictable event. They are in the best position to know the community’s hazards and how response and recovery should unfold for them.

Or are they? If, like far too many other communities across the nation, they have put emergency planning on the back burner, then they, too, have culpability in a disastrous incident. So, the people of East Palestine – and any community in the United States – need to first understand how community preparedness and response is supposed to work. Then, they need to start asking questions of their county leaders to see if their community is aligned with best practices.

All Disasters Begin and End Locally

It is a maxim among emergency preparedness officials that “all disasters begin and end locally.” Whether it is literally a local disaster because it impacts only a local community or segment of it, so it is also true with massive natural and man-made disasters. One never knows when or where the horribly unexpected – a tornado, a school shooting, or a train derailment – will happen in their own backyard.

The recent disaster in East Palestine is the ultimate example of this principle. While there has been understandable community anger with Norfolk Southern officials, there are others who are also responsible for the response that happened when those cars left the track – local emergency officials. That is because, as we see from this disaster, it does not matter where the train originated or where it was headed. When it crashed, it impacted a local community. Indeed, as the news cycle moves on, the eventual final phase of the disaster management process – recovery – will be lead and done by local people.

That community should have response plans in place for just such a potential disaster. As of this writing, I am not familiar enough to know exactly how well local emergency officials in East Palestine prepared, practiced and ultimately responded to the train derailment. Whatever the case there, it certainly raises a number of issues and questions for local citizens to be asking of their own community leaders. Those questions are beyond legitimate; they are essential.

Local Emergency Planning Committee

The first question to ask is, “Does our county have a Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC)? If the answer is “Yes,” then that leads to several follow-up questions (below); if the answer is “No,” then your community definitely has a problem. The lack of an LEPC calls into question why and how any decisions regarding emergency community preparedness (not to mention disaster response) are made. But it is one that can be solved by asking the right questions, ensuring that federal and state laws are being followed, and then working collaboratively to set up the structure and mechanisms to establish a functional and active LEPC. And, even if your community has an LEPC, it has a requirement to encourage citizen involvement, allowing for independent community input and probing questions to ensure that the safety of the citizens is being seriously considered and addressed by local emergency preparedness officials.

LEPC History

Initially LEPCs were set up to monitor one specific hazard in their communities – hazardous materials. In 1986, the U.S. Congress passed the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA). “Under the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA), Local or Tribal Emergency Planning Committees (LEPCs or TEPCs) must develop an emergency response plan, review the plan at least annually, and provide information about chemicals in the community (emphasis added) to citizens. Plans are developed by these emergency planning committees with stakeholder participation.” Membership is to include elected state, local, and tribal officials; police, fire, civil defense, and public health professionals; environment, transportation, and hospital officials; facility representatives; and, representatives from community groups and the media.

The National Incident Management System (NIMS)

For 15 years, monitoring and developing emergency response and evacuation plans to hazardous materials incidents remained the only responsibility of LEPCs. All of that changed after September 11, 2001. In response to the terrorist attacks that day, President George W. Bush directed the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to establish the National Incident Management System (NIMS). On March 1, 2004, DHS rolled out NIMS.

The establishment of NIMS dramatically expanded the roles and responsibilities of LEPCs. After years of focusing on only one community hazard, they were now charged with considering every potential hazard their community faces. They are now charged with utilizing an “all hazards” approach. To accomplish that, the LEPC develops a Hazard Vulnerability Analysis.

Hazard Vulnerability Analysis (HVA)

From the HVA, an Emergency Operations Plan (EOP) is developed. It is the document guiding all planning, exercises, responses and recovery by local officials, often in collaboration with regional, state and national partners.

According to the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, an agency of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Service, a “Hazard Vulnerability Analysis (HVA) is a systematic approach to identifying all hazards that may affect an organization, assessing the risk (probability of hazard occurrence and the consequence for the organization) associated with each hazard and analyzing findings to create a prioritized comparison of hazard vulnerabilities. The consequence, or vulnerability, is related to both the impact on organizational function and the likely service demands created by hazard impact.” For instance, potential hazards could be identified as human-related events, naturally-occurring events, technological/industrial events, and hazardous materials events.

Together, emergency response officials from the county, first responders, hospitals, utility companies, police, fire and public health will collaborate, considering their community’s hazards.

Some questions considered when compiling an HVA include: What is the probability an event will happen and what is its severity? What will be its magnitude? How it will impact human health and lives, the land, property and businesses? What capabilities does the community have to respond to these possibilities? Are there Mutual Aid Agreements in place to assist when a logistical need can’t be met locally? Evidence of a Functional and Active LEPC

Without a functioning and active LEPC, your community is at greater risk than it should be when disaster strikes. It is also out of compliance with federal law. So, citizens interested in ensuring that their LEPC is up to its task need to find out the status of their LEPC.

Start by asking if your county has an LEPC. If the answer is no, that needs to be addressed immediately. Offer to work with the commissioners to rectify the problem, but do not hesitate to reach out to state and federal authorities to see that the county commission establishes a functional and active LEPC.

If the answer is yes, there will be evidence to support it. There will be minutes proving that it meets regularly, a list of members aligned with federal membership guidelines, a written HVA, and a written Emergency Operations Plan (EOP). Ask to see copies of them.

The EOP should include (at least): How to activate the plan, including identifying who has authority to do so; Guidelines for establishing an Incident Management Team (IMT) / Emergency Operations Center (EOC) with proper FEMA certifications; Guidelines for establishing Safety & Security measures
A Crisis Communications plan; Staff Roles & Credentialing (One’s daily work may change quite dramatically during a disaster); Resources & Assets
Evacuation Plans; Guidelines for Monitoring Vulnerable Populations; An Exercise & Evaluation program that includes a full range of community drills and exercises regularly; Mutual Aid Agreements & Memorandums of Understanding; Beware of Obstacles

While you have the right to expect cooperation from county commissioners and Authorities Having Jurisdiction, you may, upon the rare occasion, find a person reluctant to honor their obligation to be transparent. In that event, ask the person what statute supports their decision to withhold information from you. Lacking one, you are entitled to the information gathered by the LEPC. Additionally, it is not uncommon for corporate interests to exercise a quiet but out-sized influence upon the decisions made by the LEPC. Remember that anything presented at an LEPC meeting is part of the public record, so to ensure that the voice of grassroots citizens are heard, ask the county commission to appoint you to the LEPC.

© Michael M. Barrick, 2023. Barrick holds a post-graduate Certificate in Community Preparedness and Disaster Management from the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health. He also has experience as an EMT/Paramedic and served as the Emergency Preparedness Coordinator and Safety Officer in two hospitals. An experienced teacher, Barrick provides training in developing, implementing, assessing and maintaining Emergency Operations Plans for community, emergency response agencies, hospitals, nonprofits and corporations.

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