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Advice from Michigan Emergency Center on Preparing Communities for Natural Disasters

Author: Michael Armitage, ENP, MPA, Director Eaton County Central Dispatch

Copyright: Copyright 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2017-07-17
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Natural disasters can be forecast to a degree but the fascinating, yet scary thing about weather is that it can still be very, very unpredictable. For this reason, it’s important for emergency managers, first responders, and communities to be well prepared in advance of an impending storm to avoid panic and widespread chaos.

Eaton County Central Dispatch in Charlotte, Michigan

In Eaton County, Michigan, March brought a windstorm that crippled much of the state, with power outages affecting more than one million people, some of whom were without power for more than a week. Yes, our local weathermen predicted the approaching wind storm. By the time you know a storm is coming, it’s too late to try to get your plans and procedures in order. This brings me to my first big piece of advice for preparing communities for natural disasters – plan ahead! 

 “Plan ahead” is somewhat of a broad statement because it encompasses so many aspects from having different communication methods in place, a plan for responding to specific incidences, a map of evacuation routes, coordination between the necessary personnel, etc. But planning these different components is the first step you should jump into. Try to consider all the things that could go wrong and then think through what you’d need to have ready to react to those circumstances.

At the peak of the Michigan windstorm in Eaton County, our Central Dispatch team received 160 calls per hour compared to the average of an estimated 30 calls per hour. Luckily, we were well prepared to handle the influx of calls, making sure our seven dispatch positions were staffed and ready to answer the calls. Being equipped with the necessary officers while also ensuring that they were prepped and ready for the forecasted storm was the first step towards making sure everything ran as smoothly as possible.

We had our experts on-hand and the next thing we needed to consider was what type of emergencies to be prepared for. The storm was projected to bring high winds and ultimately had gusts reaching speeds between 60 and 70MPH. Power lines, fallen trees and brushfires were a major concern, so we needed to be ready to track what was happening, who needed help and how we were going to connect with them. My next piece of advice to efficiently handle these moving pieces – invest in technology.

To no surprise, the storm left more people statewide without power than ever before in the history of Michigan’s leading energy provider, DTE Energy.  To keep up with our community’s needs, we needed to be able to provide real-time information on the storm – where trees or power lines may be down, where to go if you needed to evacuate, areas to avoid etc.

Recently we had adopted new technology from critical communication and data platform company, Rave Mobile Safety. With these new solutions, we were better prepared to gather information faster and thus respond quicker, so we contacted local media to see if they wanted to come to the dispatch center to do live segments with accurate details on all the power outage calls. That way, the media could get as much information out as possible to the community as things unfolded. 

Rave Mobile Safety offers a comprehensive emergency response system but particularly, Rave Command View helped us see the hotspots during the storm via map-based views of critical data. This information coupled with the Rave Alert which allowed us to communicate clearly and efficiently with emergency officials, shortened our response times, and improved responder safety.

We live in a world where technology and communication methods are constantly changing and just like upgrading your cellphone, computer or home security systems, state and local communities must also make sure they’re working with the most up-to-date mass notification technology. Not only is it important to embrace new technology but you must also know how to use it. My third and last big piece of advice – educate the community on new technology.

Adopting new technology doesn’t do any good if people don’t know how to use it. This may be an obvious statement, but this training is something that can sometimes be overlooked. Not only do emergency personnel need to be trained with new systems, but members of the community also must be comfortable using it for it to work. It’s important for emergency centers to train their employees and the people their employees will be communicating with. Then cities can conduct practice scenarios with community members, so civilians know how to use the new technology too.

I’d recommend using any new technologies well in advance of a real emergency. Use it for local alerts that aren’t life-threatening such as traffic updates, local announcements, park news, etc. If people become comfortable using it when there is no emergency, it will make procedures and communication much easier when there is a real emergency. People will be less intimidated. They’ll already know what to do.

As the saying goes, “you can never be too prepared.”  Plan ahead, stay up-to-date on new technology, train your local officials and community members, and you’ll be much better equipped to handle a crisis when it hits. Being able to communicate quickly and effectively is key, so keep these three pieces of advice in mind and you’ll feel much more confident heading into the storm. It’s important for your agency to be prepared because in an emergency, lives are on the line.

Mr. Michael Armitage, ENP was named Director of Eaton County Central Dispatch in October of 2016. Mr. Armitage previously worked for the Michigan State Police in the State 911 Office.  Prior to that, he has 12 years of public safety telecommunication experience, most recently at the University of Michigan. Additionally, Mr. Armitage has an M.P.A. from Northern Michigan University and a B.S. in Public Safety Administration from Eastern Michigan University. He also currently serves as the Mayor of Milan, Michigan.

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