Brighton Emergency Management Coordinator Stephanie Hackett recently returned from her deployment to Florida to assist with emergency operations support efforts related to Hurricane Irma. She was one of 24 emergency management professions across to state to be deployed by the Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management (DHSEM). Stephanie answered five questions to tell the community what her experience was like.
Question 1: What was going through your mind when you first found out you were being deployed to assist?
Answer 1: Being a planner, it was tough not knowing where we were going, what we would be doing and when we would get started. In addition, being deployed as part of a team, you really don’t get many options as to what you want to do /eat/sleep and have to go with the flow and make it work. Knowing we were deploying in advance of the hurricane, it was clear we would have to be even more flexible and would travel and mission assignment would ultimately be based on the actual vs predicted path.
Question 2: What was the environment like where you were working?
Answer 2: We spent several days attempting to travel south while being assigned different missions by the State of Florida based on where resources were located, travel conditions, and local needs. We went from Tallahassee to Orlando, to Miami to Marathon before beginning our mission assignment where a portion of our team began working in the Monroe County EOC in Marathon, FL. We were incredibly lucky to have been working in a government building that had generator power and air conditioning. We were assigned to various positions throughout the emergency operations center, which was very chaotic and over-tasked in the first few days after the hurricane. As the County with jurisdiction over the entire Florida Keys, they were immediately supporting lifesaving missions, while attempting to reconnect with basics services (power, water, phone and internet service) with the goal of allowing residents to reenter the keys. Most of our local EOC coworkers were not emergency workers day to day and had lost homes and suffered personal tragedies of their own, so we were grateful for the opportunity to assist and support them by bringing subject matter expertise into the way the EOC was functioning.
Question 3: What were some of the challenges your working group faced?
Answer 3: The basic challenges we encountered included working in an EOC was in being without phone or hard line services, no internet and no access to clean water. The basic functions of an EOC are to gather and provide situational awareness, support resources requests, and support field operations as needed. This was virtually impossible to do in the early days without the ability to communicate with staff in the field and to municipalities. It involved running for location to location and making assumptions about what was needed- which turned out to be incorrect in some cases. As cell service was restored to the Monroe County Government Center, and slowly to limited surrounding areas, we were able to community better by text message and limited voice calls. In addition, we arrived at time when the EOC and surrounding community has just started response operations and had yet to fully assess resources needs, as such we were working long hours, 14-16 hour shifts and commuting to a hotel an hour away.
Question 4: What were some of the successes your working group had?
Answer 4: As one of the first teams in the area to support EOC operations, the CO team was able to bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to EOC operations and support the locals by integrating into their existing systems and recommending and implementing processes and procedures making the functions and resource orders not only more efficient and accountable, but provided the locals with the documentation and paperwork that will eventually be needed to support federal reimbursement claims. As we were able to provide staffing to essential positions and functions, some of the local employees were able to take time off and return home begin to address some of their personal needs.
Question 5: Now that you’re home, what are your feelings on the entire experience?
Answer 5: It was a really great opportunity to work on the ground level on such a large scale disaster and in an area that really needed and accepted our assistance in their local EOC. As this is the first time the State of Colorado has deployed a team nationally strictly for EOC support, I am lucky to have been a part of this “experiment” and am proud of my contribution to its success. The hours, the travel, the uncertainty, and sleeping on concrete office floors for several days was both personally and professionally challenging. Despite that, it was really cool to see that both my team and I were able to work through the challenges and come together with the locals and really do meaningful work. We were also able to take some City of Brighton processes and practices (because I had them on my desktop with no internet needed!) and adapt them to work in Monroe County and streamline resource ordering functions. I wish I would’ve had the opportunity to have seen and spent more time in the community and not inside one building, but I do know that the work I did had a positive impact on what was and will be accomplished in the community.