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Federal funding depends on updating disaster mitigation plan
by Samantha White
A County Emergency Preparedness Stakeholder Conference was held Thursday, March 21, at Harney District Hospital (HDH). The conference featured “lightning round topics” in which representatives from various organizations involved in emergency preparedness outlined some of the projects they have been working on.
Natural Hazards Mitigation Plan update
Michael Howard, project specialist for the Oregon Partnership for Disaster Resilience (OPDR), discussed updating Harney County’s Natural Hazards Mitigation Plan (NHMP).
Harney County is currently cooperating with OPDR, Resource Assistance to Rural Environments and Oregon Emergency Management to update its NHMP.
According to a press release issued by Tom Sharp, Harney County emergency management and preparedness coordinator, “A natural hazards mitigation plan provides communities with a set of goals, action items, and resources designed to reduce risk from future natural disaster events.”
Howard said the three most prevalent natural disasters facing Harney County are flooding, wildfires and drought.
Harney County’s previous NHMP was developed in 2008 with funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant Program. The plan, which must be updated every five years in order for the county to maintain eligibility for federal hazards mitigation funding, expired March 19.
A steering committee made up of representatives from city and county government, federal agencies, public health, public utilities and emergency management personnel is working to update the plan in order to secure funding for future and ongoing natural hazards mitigation projects. In addition to Harney County, the NHMP affects the cities of Burns and Hines and Harney Electric Cooperative, Inc.
Howard said one update to the NHMP could be to develop a reverse 9-1-1 system. He explained that the system would provide “proactive communication to people in harm’s way” by sending messages to their cellphones. Other projects could be to develop a county-wide flood insurance program and maintain the fuel breaks that prevent wildfires from entering the cities of Burns and Hines. Howard said another project would be to spray coat the bases of Harney Electric’s power poles, helping to protect them from wildfires.
The steering committee is also putting together a community profile to help identify populations that are vulnerable or at risk during emergencies.
Howard said comments and feedback from the steering committee and general public are needed before the updated NHMP is submitted to FEMA for approval.
A draft version of the updated NHMP will be available for formal public comment from March 25 until April 5 on the OPDR and Harney County websites. Anyone interested in commenting may visit:
Shannon Elia, who manages infection control and employee health at HDH, and Barbara Rothgeb, Harney County Health Department director, presented information on the 2013 influenza response.
Elia said she tracked lab-confirmed cases of influenza and ensured that hospital staff who wanted the vaccine were able to receive it. She said Dec. 21 marked the first lab-confirmed case of influenza in the community. The hospital began restricting visitors due to influenza on Jan. 17. Visitors under the age of 13 were not allowed in the hospital until the restriction was lifted in late February.
Rothgeb said she had been tracking the number of vaccines available, and it “quickly became apparent that there was a shortage in pediatric flu vaccines.” She explained that different manufacturers have different guidelines for the minimum age that a child must be in order to receive a vaccine. For example, she said some vaccines can be given to children as young as 6 months, while others set the minimum age at 9 years.
From the experience, Rothgeb said she learned more about how vaccines can be accessed when supplies are low.
Harney County Search and Rescue
Matt Fine and Ron Copeland from Harney County Search and Rescue (SAR) discussed the rescue of four construction workers who became stuck in their snow cat at the Steens Mountain summit during a severe storm in December 2012.
They thanked the Harney County Snowmobile Club who they said did the “lion’s share of the work.”
They also mentioned that SAR rescued two hikers from Steens Mountain in June, in addition to locating lost hunters.
County fair safety and preparedness
Sharp discussed ongoing efforts to keep the Harney County Fair, Rodeo & Race Meet fun and safe.
He said one way to reduce fair hazards is to focus on disease prevention, explaining that diseases can spread when people touch animals in the livestock area and then touch food.
“If there is bacteria in the environment, there is a lot of opportunity for that to go into people,” he said.
He added that “temporary setups” in buildings and trailers are used to offer food at the fair, and vendors are often pushed to serve customers quickly, which can affect the cleanliness of food service.
He said some of these hazards can be mitigated by adding hand washing stations and posting signs that educate people about the importance of hand washing.
Sharp said focusing on fire prevention will also reduce hazards. He discussed the possibility of designating smoking areas and warned about the dangers of overloading circuits.
He also discussed the impact of having “people in uniform” present to provide security and mentioned the possibility of the health department providing a first aid station. He said having emergency medical services present and effective communication systems available are also important.
The fair’s level of preparedness for severe thunder and lightening storms was also discussed.
HDH Preparedness Overview
Perrilyn Wells, a HDH emergency medical technician, provided an overview of emergency preparedness at HDH.
“We can’t ever be completely prepared for everything,” she said, “but we can think about the possibilities.”
For example, she said hospital staff is cross-trained in Incident Command System (ICS). According to FEMA’s website, ICS is a “standardized, on-scene, all-hazards incident management approach.”
Wells added that, in the event of a power outage, the hospital has a generator that can run the hospital for up to 96 hours. She said the generator is fueled by diesel, and there have been discussions regarding how fuel will be prioritized in the event of a prolonged outage.
Wells said HDH has decontamination showers available, and a mass casualty incident trailer is “equipped and ready to go.”
She added that HDH conducts emergency drills to keep staff prepared for possible incidents. For example, the hospital conducts 12 fire drills a year.
“I’m confident that if we had a fire in [the hospital] we would be prepared,” she said.
Wells said if there was a massive earthquake or tsunami, people would come to this area in search of shelter and healthcare within 48 to 72, and the hospital needs to be prepared for that.
Kenton Dick, a representative of the Burns Paiute Tribe, asked whether the tribe could participate in some of the hospital’s drills. Wells replied that when the hospital does a table top or functional drill, she would like to invite anyone in the community to come.
Dick also asked whether the hospital has enough personnel to deal with a major disaster.
Wells replied that, if a disaster is declared, HDH can pull healthcare providers from other hospitals, and patients can be sent to other hospitals.
County Arsenic Awareness Initiative
Dana Ketcher, an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer for the Harney County Health Department, provided an update regarding the County Arsenic Awareness Initiative.
Ketcher said, while attending a conference in May 2012, she learned that Harney County has the highest on average levels of arsenic in the state of Oregon. She said this inspired her to help organize the testing of arsenic levels in private well water and inform the public about the potential health risks of arsenic exposure.
Ketcher explained that, unlike public drinking water, private well water is not regulated and tested. Drinking water containing unsafe levels of arsenic can cause long-term, cumulative health effects, such as skin lesions, Type 2 Diabetes and certain cancers. However, Ketcher said it’s hard to pin health concerns on arsenic specifically because people are exposed to low doses over long periods of time, and there are other factors that can be responsible.
Ketcher said a laboratory in Prineville sent 50 testing bottles to the health department, and 47 were used by private well owners to test their water. Ketcher said she received the results of the tests earlier that morning (March 21), and 12 of the 47 tests showed arsenic levels above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s mandatory drinking water limit.
Ketcher said Molly Kile, an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health and safety at Oregon State University, would be at the Harney County Senior and Community Services Center to provide additional information about arsenic that evening (March 21). Kile, who received her doctorate from Harvard School of Public Health in environmental health, has been researching the relationship between arsenic and reproductive health in Bangladesh.
Ketcher said local arsenic studies may be conducted in the future if the the public expresses interest in it.
“We can’t do this without community support,” she said.
Rangeland fire protection associations
Jeff Dorroh was present to discuss Rangeland Fire Protection Associations (RFPA) in Harney County. He said there are six associations in Harney County, and each is comprised of volunteer landowners who provide their own fire protection with the support of the Oregon Department of Forestry. He said fire response vehicles are “strategically located” on ranches throughout RFPA boundaries. Membership in an RFPA is not mandatory, but under Oregon law, the association can bill non-member property owners, Dorroh said. He added that money collected by an RFPA is used to help fund the association.
Harney County Judge Steve Grasty expressed concern that some areas of the county still do not have fire protection. “Truth is, there’s a big gap from Burns to Buchanan,” he said.
“Anyone can form an association. It’s real easy to do,” Dorroh replied. “But nobody gets any compensation for it. It’s all volunteers,” he said, explaining that it can be difficult to find people who are willing to form an association and respond to fires.
Burns Fire Chief Scott Williamson attended the conference to discuss the Burns Rural Fire Suppression Program, which provides fire suppression services to properties located outside Burns’ incorporated limits for properties located within the program area.
Hines City Administrator Joan Davies said there is a similar program in place for properties outside of Hines’ incorporated limits.
Joint emergency preparedness organization
Grasty presented a letter proposing a joint emergency preparedness organization.
He wrote, “On several occasions, emergency preparedness / response folks have been briefed on the advantages and opportunities which could result from a single countywide organization… I would like to hold an organizational meeting sometime during the next three weeks.”
During the conference, Grasty added that there needs to be “a common organization to prevent oversight.” He said, “The county is willing to commit a huge pot of money into this. There are a ton of resources to fund this with, and its already available. I think we can get it done, and we can get it done fairly quickly.”
Sharp ended the conference with “quick briefs,” providing updates regarding emergency preparedness exercises, trainings and grants. He also informed everyone in attendance about some of the smartphone applications that are available through the American Red Cross and discussed the Harney County Emergency Preparedness Facebook page. Sharp invited everyone to “like” the page so they can stay updated with news, citizen preparedness and information regarding public emergencies and disasters.