Local government workers from across the country come to FEMA's institute to learn how to handle emergencies better

From classroom to disaster

February 11, 2006|By MELISSA HARRIS | MELISSA HARRIS,SUN REPORTER

EMMITSBURG -- In a mock command center at a former Catholic women's college, leaders of "Central City" hustle to respond after a hurricane sends the "Roaring River" into downtown, flooding businesses and the city's 911 center.

Frazzled town managers pick up ringing phones, knowing that callers want the impossible. Irate business owners chide officials on television for incompetence, and residents complain on a radio talk show about everything from the overflowing sewer system to the washed-out veterans' cemetery.

While politicians in Washington trade blame for the slow, real-world response to Hurricane Katrina, trainers on the Federal Emergency Management Agency's 107-acre Maryland campus run disaster drills year-round for workers who will open shelters, answer calls and oversee recovery in the next crisis.

Each year, about 13,000 students go through intensive weeklong training at FEMA's Emergency Management Institute, founded in 1981 with an order to better prepare government for disasters, both natural and manmade. Last year, more than 1 million state, local and federal emergency workers passed at least one of the institute's mandatory online tests.

The importance of such training for first-responders was brought home vividly by the challenges state and local agencies faced in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks and, most recently, after Hurricane Katrina. The EMI instructors teach these responders how to coordinate with other agencies and, during mock news conferences, how to let the public know what officials can and cannot do.

"The recovery phase is a long and difficult process," said Kevin Molloy, who ran a recent hurricane recovery drill at the institute. "FEMA can deliver 7,000 trailers -- but we can't put them wherever we want.

"We can never make everything perfect, and that's not the intent."

The program gets strong reviews from leaders such as Ann Simank, a City Council member in Oklahoma City. That city put its officials through training the year before the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was bombed there in 1995.

"Our former fire chief and police chief will tell you that we handled the bombing well only because of the training our staff had at Emmitsburg," said Simank, who later went through a similar program at FEMA's Noble Training Center in Anniston, Ala. "Local governments have to be prepared to stand alone in any crisis. The federal government will come, but it may take a while, as we saw in Katrina."

The institute makes its home at the former St. Joseph's College on the edge of the Catoctin Mountains, a campus of red-brick Colonial-style buildings.

About 400 people work in the buildings, which are shared with the National Fire Academy, whose chief, R. David Paulison, now is FEMA's acting director. Experts from across the country also come to EMI to teach courses offered free of charge, aside from the $85 meal ticket for the institute's mess hall.

After the 2001 terrorist attacks, FEMA barricaded the institute's buildings with a 10-foot iron fence -- much to the dismay of those who once walked the campus as if it were a public park, eating hot, affordable meals at the mess, drinking beer at the pub and praying in the chapel.

Now, an empty helipad sits next to the tennis courts for the rare presidential or Cabinet member visit to the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial.

EMI's classes are based on two major principles that guided -- and, many argue, failed -- FEMA during Katrina: All disasters are local, and the federal government is not the first one to arrive.

"I remember this cartoon in a newspaper that showed California before and after the major earthquake" in 1989, said Richard Callis, acting superintendent of the institute, who worked for 12 years in Missouri's emergency management department. "The before picture said, `Federal government, keep off our backs.' The after drawing said, `FEMA, we need you.'

"Our role is misperceived in the press. We don't pluck people off of roofs. We respond to requests for help from states and cities."

FEMA is charged with preparing the nation for all disasters and coordinating the federal response to them; EMI is, in essence, FEMA's main school. The Noble Center satellite campus in Alabama trains health care workers.

In addition to hosting classes on campus, EMI instructors travel the country to run intensive, on-site drills on how to deal with bombs, tornadoes, chemical spills, earthquakes and "suspicious white powder," among other cataclysmic events. Soon after Katrina hit, Molloy and other EMI instructors flew to Atlanta and Baton Rouge to train about 3,000 to 4,000 federal responders -- some were fresh off the streets -- in less than two months. The emergency virtually closed the institute for three months.

Though instructors do not think their courses or plans need to be overhauled in Katrina's aftermath, they have made some adjustments based on recent real-world experience.

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