Ocean City Today

County explains emergency procedures during blizzard

By Brian Gilliland | Jan 25, 2018
Fred Webster

(Jan. 26, 2018) Though not every weather-related emergency is equal, there are common elements to how Worcester County responds to threats and how decisions are made, and the person coordinating those efforts is Emergency Services Director Fred Webster.

The recent blizzard had many meteorological similarities to a hurricane, but also many differences, which needed to be taken into account, not excluding the time of year. Hurricane season runs during the summer into fall, when the county is full of visitors as well as tourists and might require an evacuation. A few weeks ago, the population was a bit smaller, and people were able to remain in their homes.

But what’s the same starts with an emergency declaration, which comes from the governor and allows those affected to access state resources and preexisting agreements. Before the blizzard, Gov. Hogan declared a state of emergency for the four lower shore counties, Webster said, but not for the entire state.

With the declaration the county could request equipment and resources from other counties, but no funding. Webster said Worcester didn’t need any additional resources during the storm, but the option was there.

Worcester got word of the emergency declaration via a conference call with the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, which activated a management plan the commissioners signed this past June.

The plan defines the chain of command and establishes layers of redundancy to ensure the process moves as smoothly as possible during a crisis, he said.

Webster and other officials move to the Emergency Operations Center in the basement of the Government Center in Snow Hill, where computer terminals, phone lines and other emergency response gear is housed, allowing quick decision making and helping to coordinate efforts.

All of the county agencies have terminals in the center, Kim Moses, public information officer said. When the declaration comes in, there are usually 10-12 people present, but if things get worse or more complicated, as many as 65 people could be stationed at the center. If the center itself becomes compromised, there are several backups, Webster said.

“All of it falls under Fred,” Moses said.

Webster’s authority isn’t absolute, however, as the president of the county commissioners — in this case Diana Purnell — must approve a course of action recommended by the staff. In her absence, Ted Elder, as commissioner vice president, would be next in line. After that Harold Higgins, chief administrative officer, takes the lead.

Webster coordinates with other department heads like public works or law enforcement on needs and issues, and then contacts Purnell, Elder or Higgins via phone or email for approval if none are present in the operations center. State agencies are also included on calls or emails to keep them updated, Webster said.

If Worcester needed additional snowplows, for example, that request would come to Webster from the public works department. Webster would then contact the local leadership and state agencies to make them aware, and other counties would respond with available resources and cost.

“I gather the information and make a recommendation,” he said, which is then sent to the leadership for approval.

During the blizzard, the state limited its disaster declaration to the four counties, and the federal government made no declaration, leaving the cost of the response up to the county.

Moses said the costs have not yet been tallied.

“There’s overtime, fuel and maybe a plow blade that got bent,” Webster offered as typical costs.

For responses that are sustained over a few days, rotating in fresh staff can be an issue, but wasn’t during this storm.

“We had enough staff with four-wheel drive vehicles that it wasn’t an issue,” Webster said. Occasionally, a Sheriff’s deputy or a roads worker in a heavy vehicle would be tasked to drive a worker home or bring them back for a shift. Food was provided by the Worcester County Jail, Webster said.

The workers who served while other employees were off are compensated with “emergency conditions” time, Webster said. Emergency conditions time functions much like compensatory time, and is earned hour-for-hour when other employees are off, Webster said.

A separate action is required to close the state of emergency, which Worcester did on the Monday following the storm, an hour after the state lifted its own.

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