County's emergency management office called unprepared, understaffed

The Multnomah County office charged with preparing for natural and man-made disasters is largely unprepared and woefully understaffed, is disrespected by county employees as well as others in the emergency-management field, and is in violation of federal law, a consultant hired by the county has found.

Other local emergency officials feel that Multnomah County 'does not take emergency management seriously and has abdicated its responsibility to Portland,' said the consultant's report, which was delivered to the county last week.

'The Multnomah County cities interviewed feel that they have been forced into ensuring that they can take care of themselves. … There is a perception that Multnomah County leadership (administrative and political) does not understand the magnitude of the responsibility.'

State Sen. Avel Gordly, D-Portland, who sits on a joint legislative committee studying the issue of emergency preparedness, said that in a city with three earthquake faults running underneath its downtown, the report shows a Hurricane Katrina-style disaster could easily happen here.

'We should be able to rely on our government,' she said. 'This (report) is telling us that we can't. We don't have the capacity or the competency to respond in the event of a disaster.'

Rob Fussell, chief of staff for county Chairwoman Diane Linn and acting manager of the county Office of Emergency Management that was the subject of the report, said any good look at most government programs would find similar problems. 'We wanted a no-holds-barred, take-a-good-look-at yourself report,' he said. 'Sometimes it's painful to look at yourself.'

Long list of problems

Less than a year ago, the Katrina disaster in New Orleans put emergency preparedness in Portland to the test. That's when the federal government initially planned to send 1,000 disaster victims to the Rose City, requiring the unexpected opening of an emergency shelter at the vacant Washington-Monroe High School. When plans for that operation were halted by the federal government, state and local emergency officials publicly proclaimed themselves ready for anything.

The report by Wilsonville-based Emergency Services Consulting Inc., which was hired by Multnomah County to take a look at its Office of Emergency Management, says otherwise.

While the city has its own emergency-preparedness office to deal with agencies such as the police and fire bureau, the county's function is different. Its health department is charged with dealing with casualties, while other agencies deal with issues like bridges, roads and areas outside Portland.

The county OEM, which currently has a staff of just two, is charged with coordinating county agencies' planning and responses. Beyond that, it is supposed to work with five cities within the county to make sure emergency response planning is coordinated among jurisdictions to protect the health and safety of Multnomah County's 672,000 residents.

Instead, the report on OEM painted a bleak picture of an office that has been largely forgotten by county leadership.

Among its findings:

• The county lacks a Web site to give the public instruction on how to prepare or cope with a disaster.

• The county has failed to set up a community preparedness program to educate citizens, as other localities have done.

• The county spends less than half as much per capita on emergency management as its Seattle-based equivalent in King County, Wash. Even if Multnomah more than doubles its spending, it still will spend less than what the average Oregon city spends on emergency preparedness.

• The county has no up-to-date strategic plan for improving emergency preparedness, and eight required hazard-response plans are either nonexistent or not up to snuff.

• A county ordinance requires a functioning emergency management advisory council consisting of department heads and emergency personnel, but the county does not have one.

• The level of training for county staff is inadequate and not in compliance with federal standards.

• The county OEM has not provided direction to other county agencies.

• The county has not kept records of past disaster-response exercises that are intended to teach lessons for future preparedness. Nor has it kept records of past staff planning meetings and decisions.

• The county's emergency operations plan has a 'number of problems' and needs revision.

• The county has, like most cities in Oregon other than Portland, failed to turn in an emergency plan to the federal government that was due in November 2004.

Using a point system to rate compliance with a variety of measures of readiness, the consultant graded the county OEM in 10 areas. The county's rate of compliance ranged between 0 percent and 71 percent.

The report recommends the above flaws be corrected. To do so, the report recommends the county hire three new people for the office as well as an experienced emergency manager as director. The previous director stepped down for a private sector job earlier this year.

Wheeler may get involved

Gordly, for her part, said the lack of preparedness described in the report is so dangerous that incoming county Chairman Ted Wheeler should start fixing the problem now - without waiting until he takes office. Gordly said she spoke with Wheeler Wednesday, and that 'he understands that some leadership is going to be required. He's ready to take this on and not wait until January.'

Fussell said the county already is tackling many of the problems in the report and is about to start recruiting an expert emergency manager. He also noted that the county's most important agency in the event of a disaster, the health department, is in relatively good shape, according to the report. This year, county staff proposed increasing the staff of the emergency-preparedness office by one, but the idea was shot down unanimously by county commissioners.

Overall, Fussell said, the report would be an important roadmap for the new manager as well as county leadership. 'It has some excellent recommendations,' he said.

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