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March 2, 2004

Genesis: The Beginning or The End?

Alan Imhoff

Over the past several weeks quite a few column inches of newsprint have been expended on describing what the press believes is a controversial subject. Granted there are at least two sides to every story and, in all fairness, each side does not fully understand the other's point of view.

For me, this issue is raging over a necessary evil, created not by the local population but by outsiders. Individuals outside our country created the atmosphere we are now forced to live in based on a fateful day in September 2001. Individuals inside our country, but outside our county now ask the next to impossible of local governments to handle this new atmosphere.

For many individuals and organizations, the past two years have been a mix of how to handle their normal responsibilities while at the same time plan for possible actions that hopefully will never occur.

Budgets are strained, the manpower is not there at every level of government; every organization; every company. And yes, every individual has been asked to plan and prepare.

It is no different here in Frederick County than in Passaic County in New Jersey, where the Lincoln Tunnel from Manhattan could carry tens of thousands westward; or Cook County in Illinois handling even more from all over Chicago; or for that matter even Huntington, West Virginia.

All over the country the Office of Domestic Preparedness, ODP for short, has required that local governments plan for all types of new hazards in addition to the ones they have prepared for, such as fire, tornados, hurricanes, chemical spills, floods, ice storms, etc.

The key word here is plan. The first big push was to plan how to handle a smallpox epidemic, something the country has not had to do since the push to handle polio in the 1950's. The Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC), as it name implies - planning - did just that. Under the purview of the Health Department, plans were made to inoculate the entire population (over 200,000 residents).

Once that seemed to fade in importance, the county was given an estimated number of people to handle in case of an event in D.C., or Baltimore, or both. For planning purposes the number was 70,000 people from some type of nuclear event, such as a "dirty bomb."

This was done by the Nuclear Sub-Committee of the LEPC. As with most planning efforts, it was and is an evolutionary effort. Many of those involved have changed the particular focus from a "dirty bomb" scenario to a more generic "All Hazards" plan.

While planning is currently being done at the local level, integration into regional and state plans will follow. Since most of the agencies, organizations and individuals involved are planning in territory that is new, the process is not.

In October 2001 I was asked by then Mayor James S. Grimes to sit in on the group he was assembling to handle the aftermath of September 11th. This group grew to represent a variety of agencies, companies and individuals with either responsibility for - or expertise in - planning for emergency events.

Within a year the group changed over to a county function and was formulated under the LEPC organization.

Annex N was created to handle these new hazards. CBNRE for short, or Chemical, Biological, Nuclear, Radiological and Explosive, is what this public annex is chartered with handling. The LEPC is the primary clearing house to handle the coordination of individual agency plans, develop coordinated county plans and prepare for regional or state plans.

For over two years I have volunteered my time and expertise as a private citizen to this group. Most of what the group does is in a public manner with agencies and individuals from those agencies rotating in and out on a regular basis based on the needs of the planning effort and the topics being discussed.

Yes, there are times when it has been decided to go into Executive Session when discussing certain aspects of the planning with the county commissioners or state officials. Many of us who serve on this committee do not attend those meetings.

If I, as a private citizen, felt as though the committee was doing anything contrary to the public welfare, I would be among the first to express my concern. What I see is individual agencies struggling with the proper way to add planning for all these new hazards into their already crowded schedules.

Since we all have been "drafted" into this new war on terror, I see this process as something similar to the basic training I had in the Army almost 40 years ago. We did not see the need for a particular exercise or questioned, "what do we have to do that for?" Yet, in the larger scheme of things that we were not privileged to know during basic training became painfully aware when we had to use it.

Genesis is just that, a beginning. As planning must continue there are going to be many things we do not like to hear or see in those plans.

But like my experience from the Army, maybe one of these days we will become painfully aware of why we did plan. Then we can imagine how much worse it might have been had we not planned. The End.

(For those still wondering about Huntington, WV, I had the opportunity to train last summer with several emergency personnel from that city in Harrisburg, PA, in a FEMA program on Community Emergency Response. With hundreds of freight trains traveling through the heart of their city every week, and with loaded tanker cars sitting in marshalling yards, it has more potential hazards than Brunswick does here.)

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