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County must be disaster-ready

by: Carole Archer, From left to right, Gresham Firefighters Lt. Terry Kimball, Eric Byrne and Jeff Markham followed by Tiffanie Andrews and Michael Snodgrass, ascend a hill to begin rope, cliff and confined space rescue drills at Station 72 last fall. The $350,000 rig in the background doubles as a technical rescue team vehicle as well as a CBRNE rig, an acronym for chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive disasters.

Nearly five years after the Sept. 11 attacks and a year after Hurricane Katrina, top Multnomah County officials still haven't gotten the message that the possibility of natural or human-caused disasters must be taken seriously.

A consulting company's recent evaluation of Multnomah County's Office of Emergency Management reveals a startling number of deficiencies. The office is understaffed, disrespected by peers and out of step with local, state and federal requirements for counties to take the lead in emergency planning. Considering the earthquake faults running near this area and potential local targets for international or homegrown terrorists, it is hardly comforting to know that the county has shirked its responsibilities.

For the safety of this region's citizens, Multnomah County commissioners need to act immediately to increase staffing and measurable results in the Emergency Management Office. This must be accomplished without whining about the budget or pointing fingers at rival commissioners. Only the smallest of minds would place politics above disaster preparedness and citizen safety.

The 71-page review of Multnomah County's program was written by Gresham residents Riley and Karen Caton, who work for Emergency Services Consulting. The report points out too many flaws in Multnomah County's emergency-management program to enumerate here. But the essence of the evaluation is summed up in one paragraph that describes how the county's program is viewed by stakeholders within and outside county government:

'There is a perception that the county does not take emergency management seriously and has abdicated its responsibility to Portland. This is based on the lack of funding and personnel, the lack of communication, a low level of expertise, and a thought process at the tactical level instead of the strategic level.'

The county Office of Emergency Management's primary role is to plan for emergencies, not to be the agency responding on the ground when disaster actually strikes. The county Health Department and other local agencies - including the city of Gresham - are doing good work in the area of emergency preparedness. However, events such as Hurricane Katrina demonstrate just how important it is to have a regional plan in place. Like the city of New Orleans, Multnomah County is not practiced or prepared for a massive emergency.

The road toward better preparedness begins with hiring an experienced, professional emergency manager and staff, as recommended in the consultants' report. The number of employees in the Office of Emergency Management should be expanded from two to five - just to keep it comparable with similar-size governments.

In and of itself, adding staff won't solve all the problems identified in the report. But without the right number of people and adequate funding, there's no way to operate a competent program.