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Columbia Emergency Planning Association to merge with Columbia County Emergency Management as workgroup in October

COURTESY OF CEPA - CEPA members converse during a regular monthly meeting in February 2008. After CEPA merges with the Homeland Security and Emergency Management Commission in October, meetings will be held on a quarterly basis.The Columbia Emergency Planning Association, which has been serving the county as an emergency planning committee for more than 30 years, will begin the process of merging with a county commission in October.

Since its inception in 1986, CEPA has been about two things — communication and connectivity — according to one of the group’s life-long members, Diane Dillard, who has been with the association from the beginning.

Those goals are something the organization will maintain as it becomes a working group under Columbia County Emergency Management’s Homeland Security and Emergency Planning Commission.

The CEPA board of directors voted to dissolve the association earlier this month. A key motivation was to eliminate the duplication of effort with the commission, which has similar goals as CEPA.

Dillard said the new endeavor with the county is not about saying goodbye to CEPA, but about seeing how the group will once again change to meet the needs of the community.

“It’s a merging of two emergency planning agencies and it’s for the good of the residents here,” she said.

In its 31-year tenure as a community planning group, CEPA has been through several structural changes, board changes and general focus shifts, and members see this next phase as a new chapter for opportunity.

Origins of CEPA

During a night shift in 1986, a pipeline ruptured in the Boise Paper Mill, causing a major power outage and prompting emergency crews to block off mill access. Without power, however, there were few open lines of communication between agencies, causing “chaos,” some have reflected.

After hours of trying to figure out how to get fire crews into the mill while police and city officials blocked access to the facility, it became clear to then-mill manager Jim Huff that something had to change.

Huff envisioned the immediate need for business and industry leaders and emergency responders to create a communication network to coordinate with another in the event of a disaster. By 1987, he and Dillard, who worked as a communications manager at the mill, had formed a small group of 25 people to begin work as the Community Awareness Emergency Response committee, known as CAER.

COURTESY OF CEPA - CEPA members visited Georgia Pacific's Wauna Paper Mill in 2008 after the company hosted a meeting for the association. Over the years, CEPA has had various guest speakers and hosts at monthly meetings.Members of CAER worked together for years to discuss disaster preparation strategies, mitigation techniques and other ways to combat disastrous situations in the community.

By the mid 2000s, those efforts allowed CAER to be designated by the state as its first Local Emergency Planning Committee. Oregon now has 16 recognized LEPCs which operate under the Oregon State Fire Marshal’s State Emergency Response Commission.

“LEPCs deal with topics such as, identifying in advance, what the different response entities will do during a response, assisting with arranging the appropriate training, equipment and drills, educating the public, coordinating with facilities possessing hazardous substances and many other pieces of the emergency planning puzzle,” documents from the State Fire Marshal state.

The LEPC distinction allowed the group to network with state agencies and leverage a wider net of resources during an emergency, explained Steve Pegram, director of Columbia County Emergency Management.

Over the years, CEPA was instrumental in creating a hazardous household waste disposal program; helping implement the Community Alert Network communication system, which sends automated messages to people in the event of a local disaster; creating risk management plans and community capability assessments; and setting up information booths at county fairs and community events.

Turning a new page

During CEPA’s last monthly meeting, the board voted to dissolve CEPA and transfer its remaining funds to Columbia County Emergency Management’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Commission.

CEPA will more or less operate as a work group of members within the commission, Pegram explained, and will hold quarterly meetings about emergency preparation, which are open to the public.

“Steve [Pegram’s] group has been doing many of the same things for awhile,” Dillard said.

CEPA is celebrating its achievement of 31 years by hosting a party next week, on Oct. 5, to reminisce about its accomplishments.

Huff, who now lives in Austin, Texas, is expected to attend.

“[I’m looking forward to] renewing acquaintances,” Huff said. “It’s sort of like going back to your high school reunion ... it’s going to be nice to chat with them.”