Idaho is relatively isolated from the threat of natural disasters the magnitude of Hurricane Katrina, or the tsunami that swept through Indonesia last winter, or the terrorist attacks on New York, Washington, D.C., Madrid and London.
Isolated, but not immune.
How well prepared is the Idaho Transportation Department to respond to a natural or human-caused disaster?
Better prepared today than yesterday, and not as prepared as it will be tomorrow, suggested Bryan Smith, the department’s emergency management coordinator.
“As far as an agency, we’re used to responding to small and medium-size emergencies… We call them winter storms. So we’re constantly on standby.
“But we want to be more aggressive by becoming 24-hour-active to respond statewide in the event of an interruption to our transportation system. That will require a change in operation practices, such as taking state vehicles home and introducing new training models in partnership with other agencies.
“We want our program to be all hazards, all sizes – focusing on anything that could interrupt transportation services.”
Smith emphasized the importance of maintaining an efficient system during a major disaster, a point driven home in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Transportation was essential in evacuating residents from coastal cities before the event. And it was essential in rescue and providing relief after the hurricane.
There are two ways of looking at the role of transportation during a disaster – 1) as a victim that shares in the physical loss (destruction of infrastructure such as highways and bridges), and 2) as a critical link that facilitates the delivery of emergency services.
A hurricane has never hit Idaho. But residents have experienced devastating floods, occasional earthquakes, landslides and avalanches, and severe winter storms. The difference is one of magnitude, not process or procedure.
ITD personnel continually train for such events and are committed to the presidential directive to develop comprehensive response plans, Smith said. Preparedness is an on-going process. But because of changing conditions, personnel and response capabilities, the department will never arrive at “preparedness.”
Working closely with other federal, state and local agencies, ITD has made major strides in planning for emergencies or disasters. Smith expects to complete a draft emergency response program that will meet federal Department of Homeland Security goals in the near future.
Public agencies, including ITD, are charged with participating in the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and the National Response Plan.
Although there are financial incentives to participating fully in the federal process, the most import consideration is “it’s the right thing to do,” Smith said.
He hopes to present a draft of the emergency response plan to the Idaho Transportation Board this fall.
It will call for an integrated plan that brings together a cross-section of ITD employees who could be called upon in the event of a catastrophe, from materials and maintenance personnel, to information technology, and the divisions of Motor Vehicles, Public Transportation Planning and Aeronautics.
Emergency preparedness will touch nearly every ITD function in some respect and will involve a broad spectrum of department personnel.
Many of them will converge in Lewiston Sept. 26-30 for emergency training through the Idaho State University Institute of Emergency Management. The weeklong conference includes presentations from state and regional authorities, training and workshops, operation of an emergency operations center and a simulated incident.
For the first time, ITD employees whose functions include emergency or disaster response will meet Thursday during the conference to discuss the department-wide initiative and their roles in the process.
“We’re creating our own future right now,” Smith said. “Things are changing so fast there is no normal…”