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Local emergency service providers: Disaster pulled groups together, with federal help

September 11th, 2011 1:52 am by Becky Campbell

If there was anything positive that came after 9/11, it might be the flood of federal funding to better equip and train emergency responders in all disciplines.

Over the past 10 years, that money through Homeland Security has fitted local agencies with a wide array of tools needed to respond to any natural or manmade disaster.

Just this past week, a district training exercise — while not specifically scheduled to coincide with 9/11 — provided training for emergency responders reacting to the release of a chemical agent during a large-scale public event.

“The training funds that we achieved and the equipment we’ve gotten through Homeland Security, that has really helped our agencies respond to natural disasters,” said Nes Levotch, executive director of the Washington County/ Johnson City Emergency Management Agency.

“What we’re seeing is agencies working together as one unit. We’re seeing all our first responders on the same page responding to an incident and understanding how the national emergency management system works,” Levotch said. “We’re all communicating together now instead of going different directions.”

The result of all the training was apparent earlier this year, Levotch said, when several tornadoes hit Northeast Tennessee.

“When we had the tornadoes, we had over 52 agencies involved in that disaster and once we got our incident command set up, everybody pulled together and everybody worked together, not as an independent.”

A command post vehicle, basically a camper-style trailer equipped to be a mobile gathering spot for those in charge of coordinating a large-scale response, brings together leaders from all disciplines — medical, police and fire, as well as city and county officials as needed.

“We’re mainly a logistical organization,” Levotch said of the EMA. “Once we get on scene we work with all the other agencies and try to fill their needs whether it be fuel, water, equipment” or whatever, he said.

“Once we use our local resources, we have the ability to go for state resources and on to federal resources.”

During last week’s exercise, the command post was set up just as it would be in a real situation, with representatives from the necessary agencies, including Johnson City Police Maj. Mark Sirois.

He remembers the shock of 9/11, and in the months that followed, the widespread scare of anthrax attacks.

“What we saw from the police point of view was a shift toward ... collaboration outside of our own discipline,” Sirois said.

“We’re charged with law enforcement and maintaining peace and order. A large degree of what we would do at any scene even today, after 9/11, is do the same task — maintaining peace and order through control and direction,” he said.

Many JCPD officers are no stranger to responding to an emergency in another capacity because of the former public safety officer system, which also trained officers as firefighters.

“We’ve had to increase our collaborative efforts with not just fire, but with emergency medical services (and) public and private entities to be part of the incident command team,” he said. “At this command center, you’ve got a unified command team.”

Police training in the past has been geared toward law-enforcement activities, he said. But a directive under President George W. Bush also put into place some online training through the National Incident Management System.

NIMS, implemented through FEMA, is a “comprehensive, national approach to incident management applicable at all jurisdictional levels and across functional disciplines,” according to the FEMA website.

It provides a consistent framework of incident response so agencies from all levels — federal, state, tribal and local — can work together effectively when responding to an incident.

Much of Homeland Security funding has dried up. Levotch said this fiscal year those federal dollars for the district were cut 80 percent.

It doesn’t change the need for training, he said, and that will continue on the highest level possible.

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