Emergency management coordinators in South Carolina have a lot to think about. A lot to think about.
On any given day, a normally quiet command center, like the one deep in the ground below Greenville City Hall, could fill up with representatives from a whole pile of agencies in a matter of minutes.
“County Public Works, the American Red Cross, the Department of Social Services, DHEC, law
enforcement, the fire departments, EMS,” says Jessica Stumpf, emergency management coordinator for Greenville County. “Or if we have an issue where we have to house animals, we’ve got Greenville County animal care. Basically, every county agency and organization has some sort of role in emergency management.”
And what all these agencies do when an emergency happens is coordinate a response between a lot of moving parts. If you consider that even a large-scale disaster is a local one, all these state, county, and municipal agencies need to know what the other is up to, and how best to take whatever actions they need to take.
The thing about emergencies and disasters is, even if you see one coming – like a brewing storm, for instance – an awful lot of chaos could easily ensue. Part of the mayhem is physical – a storm blows things around or hurls debris through windows; a chemical spill finds its way into a habitat or an aquifer, maybe.
But an equally troublesome part is what people hear vs. what is really going on. For Chuck Haynes, emergency management coordinator for York County, combatting the misinformation residents might get on social media sites is a huge undertaking.
“Before social media, we could kind of drive the conversation,” Haynes says. But now, people start talking to each other immediately – often with only pieces of the overall story, any or all of which might not actually be accurate.
And having to correct rumors and misperceptions can really gum up how well an emergency response team can do its job.
“We find ourselves, through exercises and real-world experience,” he says, “ that we can quickly fall into the trap of not getting what we need to get done and just spending a lot of time and resources chasing around things that may or may not exist.”
One of the most common misconceptions, Stumpf says, is that people think of a county emergency management office, of OEM, as the unit in place to save everyone during a crisis. But while OEMs are “here to help,” she says, the reality is that there are far more people in any county than there are emergency responders. Crews, in other words, have to tackle the biggest and most severe problems first – danger to life or infrastructure damage or a massive power outage, for example.
In other words, you, dear citizen of South Carolina, are responsible for looking after yourself.
“The first 72 hours are on you,” she says. “Do you have enough food and clothing and water and what-not? Do you have enough medication? Do you have enough food for your pets? Things to consider, so we always tell people to have enough food and water to last you 72 hours.”
The South Carolina Emergency Management Division recommends being prepared for emergencies well ahead of time. That includes knowing evacuation routes and shelter locations, packing an emergency kit, and knowing which kinds of disasters are the most likely to occur in your area.
More information is available at scemd.org.