No-win municipal emergency planning strategies

There’s no such thing as no risk, and every approach to emergency municipal planning has more or less danger than the alternative

emergency plan municipal planningTORONTO, Ont. Oct. 31, 2016/ Troy Media/ – When it comes to municipal planning for emergencies, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

Air force pilots have two good perspectives. One is that they don’t see the point of jumping out of a perfectly serviceable aircraft. This means the pilot should be capable of bringing that craft down safely and not ejecting. The other refers to ejecting from an aircraft: “Committing suicide to avoid getting killed.”

This issue of being double-damned is similarly apparent in plenty of municipal emergency plans.

Take Washington, D.C., for example. First comes the controversy about having a public plan to combat unusual events, including terrorism, in the capital of the free world. Folks in Washington may have reason to keep some of their plans secret.

But how do you keep a secret in Washington? Take the semi-secret exercise undertaken to simulate evacuation in case of a dirty bomb or other nuclear event. When the folks in nearby Frederick County found out that the Great Frederick Fair Grounds was an evacuation centre for people fleeing Washington, their response was predictable: Not so fast. County officials don’t want contaminated people on their fairgrounds. And they don’t want the people hosed down because then contaminated water will be in their sewer system.

Not only are there insufficient mutual aid agreements among towns and cities in the area, but there’s not even co-ordination.

One transit official has noted “nobody’s in charge at the regional level.” If you put people on buses and trains, they’re targets. If you don’t, there’s gridlock. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

But that may be the least of Washington’s troubles. My research has found that the emergency plan is 12 years old and minor revisions were made eight years ago. Some of the plan is unavailable and other portions print off the page. There’s at least one blank map with no streets or other features. There’s a lot of small print that will be hard for many people to read.

There’s no such thing as no risk, and every approach to emergency municipal planning has more or less danger than the alternative.

The plan for Brisbane, Australia, rightly notes there should be “suitable staging areas” in an effort to manage traffic in an emergency, but it doesn’t indicate where these might be. This will cause delay. But naming staging areas makes them a target for terrorism or mischief. Or they might just be a target for hot dog vendors who clog up the roads.

Packing bright orange garbage bags in your emergency “go bag” means you’ll be able to signal for help. But you’ll also be vulnerable to people without supplies who might want yours.

If we know a storm is coming, it might be a good idea to let schools and offices out early. But, as Boston notes in its emergency plan, this can create “super rush hours” and perhaps more danger. And what about all those kids arriving at empty homes because their parents are at work farther away? How about kids going to locked homes?

Tampa’s plan wisely notes that there will be more goods donated than can be handled. It’s nice that people will be generous, but some will dump off what is essentially garbage. Even nice people will dump off food that they don’t want to eat and clothes they don’t want to wear. What else would they donate – prized possessions?

If victims need clothing, it doesn’t matter if it’s junk to someone else. If the clothing contains disease or skin irritant, a sick person or terrorist has a little victory.

Virtually any way you look at it, you’re double damned.

Troy Media columnist Dr. Allan Bonner has consulted on some of the major planning and public policy issues of our time on five continents over 25 years. He is the author of Safer Cities. Allan is included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.

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