UA Makes Big Impression at 2012 Spring Preparedness Conference

From left: Paul Hefner, Type I Deputy Incident Commander, California; Michael O'Hare, Deputy Director Department of Human Services and Emergency Management, State of Alaska; Randy Pommenville, Emergency Management Coordinator, University of Alaska Fairbanks; Ron Swartz, Emergency Manager Lieutenant, University of Alaska Anchorage; Patrick Gamble, University of Alaska President; Brendan McCluskey, Executive Director of Emergency Management and Occupational Health & Safety, University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey; Dave Hubeny, Director of Emergency Management, Binghamton University; Rick Forkel, Director of Emergency Management University of Alaska System. Photo by Kate Wattum

A large turnout from multiple campuses throughout the University of Alaska System took part in the 2012 Spring Preparedness Conference April 10-12, sponsored by the Department of Military and Veterans’ Affairs and the Division of Homeland Security.

Over 230 people from across the state, including first responders, school district employees, state and federal emergency planners and representatives from UA campuses, spent three days learning, sharing and networking at the conference. Presenters included the school superintendent and fire chief from Joplin, Missouri, who shared their respective experiences before, during and following the devastating EF5 multiple-vortex tornado that hit the community on May 22, 2011. About 25 percent of Joplin was destroyed, with the official death toll at 160 people.

Opening comments by Gov. Sean  Parnell included acknowledgment of the effort University of Alaska has put forth regarding Emergency Management and community preparedness activities, including last summer’s full-Scale exercise at UAF.   

UA President Pat Gamble also was among the leaders who opened up the conference, along with John Madden, Director of the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management; and Department of Education Commissioner Mike Hanley.

Gamble stressed the importance of planning and “getting it right up front” from the start of a disaster or incident. With the rapidity of social networking and the intense scrutiny of media on how organizations and institutions respond to disasters, second guessing begins long before events conclude. Even with the best emergency or disaster response, lawsuits afterwards are probable. 

“The complexity is immense,” Gamble said. “Training first, and then exercising your plan are key.”   

Joplin schools superintendent, C.J. Huff, stressed the importance of “outstanding relationships” with other community agencies and non-governmental groups. These “pre-need relationships” are important more than ever when disaster strikes. The first time to meet your neighbors and community members is not in the midst of a major crisis, but long before, Huff said.

For the first time ever, the preparedness conference featured a higher education track solely for university participants, of which there were 26. The following subject matter experts presented: Paul Hefner of California, a 30-year veteran of emergency response and preparedness, culminating as National Fire Facilities Program Manager with the Bureau of Land Management;  Brendan McCluskey, executive director of Emergency Management and Occupational Health and Safety at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey; and Dave Hubeny, director of Emergency Management at Binghamton University. UA’s three emergency managers--Rick Forkel (System), Randy Pommenville (UAF) and Ron Swartz (UAA)---also made presentations during the higher ed track.

In addition to hearing about emergency notification requirements under the federal Higher Education Opportunity Act, sessions included “lessons learned” from the record-breaking winter snow storm in Valdez this past December and January, and how the Prince William Sound Community College responded and addressed on-going recovery efforts; business continuity planning; the importance of all-hazards Incident Management Teams; and campus shelter operations.

Steve Shiell, University of Alaska Southeast

Steve Shiell, Business Manager at Prince William Sound Community College, shared his experience in dealing with the massive winter storm Valdez experienced in December and January. Inundated with snow, unable to keep campus entrances and exits safe and clear, and ultimately facing structural safety concerns, the Valdez campus delayed the start of the spring semester. The community received 25 feet of snow in an eight-week period, including 80 inches over one four-day stretch.

“We were able to hire only one extra person that week. Everybody else with a snow scoop or a shovel was already working,” Shiell said. Funding limitations also hampered the campus; the going rate for snow shovelers in Valdez was $50 an hour, yet the university was only authorized to spend up to $14.50 an hour for such help.

Shiell said the campus leaders learned many lessons from the December snow storm, including the need for an incident management team and a better decision making process internally. PWSCC, with the help of its MAU, UAA, eventually hired a roofing contractor from Anchorage to come in and reduce snow loads on roofs, which had become dangerously overloaded.

“I was pretty nervous,” Shiell said.

The idea of planning, training and exercising for all hazards is to reduce that level of anxiety throughout the UA System, said Rick Forkel, UA’s Emergency Management director. “When something happens on one of our campuses, UA wants to deliver the resources needed, or help coordinate support for the response,” he told the group gathered in the higher education track.

Attendees included representatives from Nome, Dillingham, Kotzebue, Bethel, Sitka, Fairbanks, Juneau, Ketchikan, Cordova and Anchorage campuses.

The commitment and participation of UA employees impressed officials. Mike O’Hare, Deputy Director of the Federal Homeland Security in Alaska, said UA has made “sea changes in preparedness” during his opening remarks.

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