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Opinion >  Column

Sue Lani Madsen: Change is hard, communication harder in emergency management divorce

The sheriff is livid. The fire chief feels misunderstood. The deputy director of emergency management is exasperated. What we have here is a failure to communicate, ignored until an election season made emergency management into yet another political football.

Sheriffs are by law the default director of emergency management for their counties, while the deputy director handles day-to-day coordination.

Until this spring, the Greater Spokane Department of Emergency Management was housed at the Spokane Fire Department training center at the edge of the Spokane Community College campus. It includes space used as an emergency operations center for city and regional disasters.

Much of the technology and outfitting of the building was paid for by a federal grant supporting multijurisdictional coordination efforts, according to Dave Byrnes, former deputy director of the Greater Spokane DEM. Gaps in communication were major weak spots identified in the response to 9/11. The communications and dispatch center was consolidated at about the same time for the same reason.

“We spent a lot of time working to build togetherness,” Byrnes said. “I hate to see it fall apart.”

The city of Spokane gave notice of its intent to withdraw from the interlocal agreement for emergency management in 2018. Funding for the department is assessed on a per capita basis. As of Dec. 31 of this year, the city will no longer pay in under the interlocal agreement.

The relationship between Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich and Spokane Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer broke down well before the withdrawal. It was a rift widened by an offhand eviction notice in an email from Schaeffer on Feb. 8, 2018.

“On an Emergency Management note, we are adding staff to EMS and Training starting March 1,” Schaeffer wrote. “As a result of the changes … we will need the offices on the north side of the building that are currently occupied by DEM staff.”

The interlocal agreement states any change in the office location of the DEM must be made by mutual agreement. The unilateral move may not have been intended as a political act, but it was received as one.

“This community was ahead of the curve and they have destroyed every regional concept we have left,” Knezovich said.

Schaeffer explained the goal was a sharper focus on urban disasters affecting the city of Spokane but not necessarily the larger region.

“Greater Spokane Emergency Management is a planning organization and the city will continue to participate in their planning and drills, but we will maintain the highest level of resilience through our internal response, mitigation and recovery plans,” Schaeffer said.

He cited the need for better business continuity planning as his key concern.

Schaeffer sees independent planning led by a cabinet-level position in the mayor’s office as key to coordinating across city departments, but that can happen within the DEM framework.

According to Chandra Fox, current deputy director, each jurisdiction controls its level of internal planning. The city is in danger of missing a key November planning deadline with FEMA and skipped a major multijurisdictional training drill.

“I had three Spokane Police Department officers asking me where’s our fire department,” Fox said. “Everything we do, the city is invited.”

Participating cities include their Emergency Operation plan as an annex to the county plan. Developing a continuity of preparation plan is optional.

“I can provide the worksheets and templates for continuity planning, but each city has to write its own,” Fox said.

Business continuity is not an emergency services function, but relies heavily on public works.

Spokane Valley City Manager Mark Calhoun reported his city’s emergency plan is undergoing one more internal review and will be submitted to DEM next week. They are working on a continuity plan as time and staffing permits, led by the city engineer and building official.

Everyone has a different version of how we got to this point.

After describing the situation to my daughter, she offered this analogy: “It sounds like a bad divorce with a custody fight and the parents have forgotten the children.”

The next mayor better be a good relationship counselor.

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