Borough Re-Envisions Emergency Response Operations
One year after Hurricane Irene wreaked havoc in Fair Lawn, the borough has moved to a new, and what it expects to be, more effective emergency response model
If Hurricane Irene swept through Fair Lawn today, the borough wouldn't employ the same emergency response model it used last year.
Instead, it would return to procedures used during 1999's Tropical Storm Floyd that were shelved for last August's federally declared disaster.
Current borough manager Tom Metzler, who has extensive emergency management experience and was actually working for the Federal Emergency Management Agency when Irene touched down, said that while he would not second guess the previous regime, things would operate differently under his watch.
"There would be a much greater emphasis on our emergency operations center and representation of all of the individuals that we needed around the table," said Metzler, who nonetheless praised the borough's 2011 hurricane response. "I wasn’t there, I’m not in a position to criticize. I just think a coordinated effort through an emergency operations center is the national standard, it's consistent with the national response plan and that’s what we should do."
For the approximately two weeks last year from the time the storm landed through the historic flooding and subsequent cleanup, emergency management coordinator Ira Marks said then-borough manager Timothy Stafford held meetings with all department heads on a near-daily basis, but did not open a 24-hour operations center.
In between meetings, Marks said department heads kept in constant touch with one another to coordinate immediate plans of action as necessary.
"I kept [Stafford] informed as much as possible, but for the most part I wasn’t here," he said. "I was in the street."
When Marks, his deputy or another OEM employee were out of the office, phone calls from concerned residents went to an answering machine. Messages were returned promptly and not left to pile up, Marks said, but he would have preferred using the 24-hour operations center model that Metzler instituted and employed during Tropical Storm Floyd.
Under the operations center model, non-emergency calls placed to the police or other departments are routed to a single 24-hour human-operated hotline for flood-related questions.
The approach benefits both the caller and the borough, Marks said.
For the caller, speaking to a real person offers confirmation and relief that their problems are being heard and handled in a timely fashion. For the borough, being able to respond to and compile a list of all overnight callers and their needs allows employees to prepare an itinerary in advance so morning crews can get started immediately on the day's tasks upon arriving at work.
"I believe a coordinated effort best serves the public and I think we can show routinely across the United States that where those basic fundamentals are applied, the disaster will run smoother," said Metzler, adding that the emergency management coordinator, not the manager, would be responsible for running the operations center in a future disaster.
Metzler said that from his discussions with department heads regarding last year's hurricane response, he learned it was never clearly defined whether the manager or the OEM coordinator was in charge.
From 1990 to 2005, during his time at the helm of the borough's emergency management department, Metzler said he ran the show during emergencies -- a protocol he has reinstated since taking over as manager.
"[Past managers] effectively said, 'The resources of the borough are at your disposal, please use them wisely,'" Metzler said of his time heading the OEM. "I, as the emergency management coordinator, briefed the manager every single day, but the borough manager was not the person that was in the EOC calling the shots."
Current emergency management coordinator Ira Marks declined to discuss whether any behind-the-scenes leadership conflicts between he and then-manager Stafford arose during last year's storm.
"It's old news and it's not going to help anything," he said. "I did what had to be done for the residents."
Beyond activation of an operations center and improved coordination between departments, Metzler is also hoping to clean up the disaster claims process going forward.
When the emergency management coordinator became a part-time position a few years back, responsibility for filing post-disaster insurance claims was transferred to the administration. The OEM coordinator continued to handle the supplemental FEMA claims, however, which resulted in some confusion.
“Looking back at Irene, one of the problems was that administration took care of insurance, Ira was taking care of the FEMA claims, but there was no coordination between the two," Metzler said. "I came back after the storm and that’s really what I did. I basically said, 'Let’s look at insurance, let’s look at FEMA and let’s merge the two together and clean this mess up,' which I think we did fairly successfully."
Metzler said he'd soon be preparing a presentation for council on the future of emergency management in the borough.
"While I’m here there will certainly be a heightened coordination between the FEMA and the insurance, if there’s a future disaster," he said. "But I’m not going to be here forever…so I think we need to look beyond that."