Suzana Lakic: Understanding Emergency Management Systems in Pinellas County

2015 COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT IN PUBLIC HEALTH PREPAREDNESS JULY 20-30, 2015

Emergency Management in Pinellas County with Sally Bishop

Introduction:

Although longtime residents might think otherwise, emergency preparedness is very important in Pinellas County. As the second most vulnerable county in the nation and the most densely populated in the state, the staff of the Pinellas County Emergency Operations center have their hands full when preparing for any level of emergency, especially high risk ones such as a category four or five hurricane. 

As the most densely populated county in Florida, Pinellas County houses twenty-four cities, four special fire districts, and is home to approximately four thousand people per square mile. Of the 929,048 residents, the average age sits in the higher 50s to low 60s. Pinellas County’s large older population creates additional challenges during emergencies because many of those folks are not able to care for themselves and thus require additional accommodation. Of those people, many feel that they do not need to prepare for an emergency, because they lived in the county for years and have experienced all the possible emergencies. However, their false sense of security increases their risk during any major emergency. Moreover, these statics do not account for the thousands of tourists that visit Pinellas every year. Not only do tourists add to body count that the EOC has to account for, but many of them are snowbirds and own mobile homes within the county.


Preparedness:

Although emergencies are not yearlong, preparedness is. The Emergency Manager, Sally Bishop, could not stress enough how important emergency preparedness is to the Pinellas County EOC. There are plans in place that can be used either for small emergencies or the worst case scenario. In order to create such versatile plans, they often revisit the Tampa Bay’s Catastrophic Plan scenario, Hurricane Phoenix. Hurricane Phoenix is a stimulated depiction of the destruction and damage that could be caused by a catastrophic hurricane if it were to hit the Tampa Bay area. It was created to measure the effects on not only the residents and infrastructure, but on the economic and social systems as well.

In order to effectively prepare, the EOC has to work with all of the twenty-four cities and four fire districts, in order to ensure that everyone is on the same page. In addition, they have to accommodate to the county’s nine hospitals, 75 nursing homes, and hundreds of assisted living facilities to ensure that those in special need have been accounted for and have transportation if necessary.

Aside from their own planning, the EOC works to educate the public in planning for an emergency. It takes an entire community to effectively prepare and recover from a
disaster. The Pinellas EOC provides residents with countless useful planning guides and survival kits. This includes the Storm Surge Protector Application and Evacuation Zone lookup, which allow residents to find their evacuation zone and if needed, the nearest shelter/emergency service area. Many people are unaware that although their home may be on high ground, it could easily be flooded with high storm surge. Furthermore, the EOC has even created checklists to help resident stay organized when preparing for emergencies.

Recovery:

Once an emergency strikes, the job of the EOC has not finished, but instead just begun. It is up to the EOC to assess any damage caused, and evaluate how much can be salvaged and how much needs to be replaced. This process goes for both residential damage and business damage. Often times after assessing the damage, the EOC will get in contact with property realtors to see if any structures can be rented or leased. If that is not a possibility, they will use county parks and property to conduct county business in field tents.

In addition to ensuring business continuity, the EOC is responsible for notifying and keeping the public informed. If possible, they use their briefing room to conduct official notifications. This applies to pre- and post-emergency situations as well as during the response. It is important that all of the information they give out is reliable and consistent; any false information could cause havoc amongst the public and create even more problems.

Impression:

Ignorance is bliss. Prior to visiting the Pinellas County EOC, like many other residents, I never truly thought of how destroyed we could be after a serious emergency. The fact that we could be completely wiped off after one hurricane speaks volumes. I am truly grateful that I was given the opportunity to tour the EOC and learn more about it, because I learned about the importance of preparedness and even where to go during an emergency. Prior to this education session, I was not aware of all the resources available to my family and I. I now find myself preparing for small floods as if they were extreme. It’s better to be safe than sorry, right?

Beside the extra emergency preparation knowledge, I learned that there are many opportunities to join the EOC. From volunteering and interning, to even working an entry-level position, the EOC provides opportunities for anyone interested. Most of these jobs are hands on with various projects within the county,

Written By: Suzana Lakic, Health Sciences Undergraduate Student, University of South Florida

 

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