By Laurence J. Sasso, Jr.
This is the sixth in a series of articles describing the inner workings of the Town of Smithfield’s various offices and departments.
“Crisis is a sprint. Consequences are a marathon.”
The words are those of Todd S. Manni, Smithfield’s Director of Emergency Management (EMA). He is describing the difference between the role of first responders and that of the agency he has served for 23 years and led for 13.
“When we have a disaster, regardless of size, there are always two sets of challenges presented – emergency crisis and emergency consequences. For the most part emergency crises – people trapped, people injured, accidents, fires, neutralizing immediate threats, and addressing harm to people are handled by our very capable firefighters and police officers.
“However, the second set of challenges presented – the emergency consequences of a disaster are the domain of Emergency Management.”
Todd is the head of the town’s only remaining part-time agency and he is its only salaried employee. However, that doesn’t mean it is a sleepy unit with a low profile.
A direct descendant of the community Air Raid Warden program of the WWII era and the citizen-staffed Civil Defense Corps that followed during the 1950s and 60s when the focus was on the threat of nuclear war, today the department is an up-to-the minute contemporary program that exists to respond to high impact incidents.
Thinking about how it functions? Think events like hurricanes, blizzards, wind storms, floods, forest fires, epidemics (in 2010 they distributed H1N1 flu vaccine), prolonged power outages, widespread natural disasters and/or what Manni calls “unthinkable deliberate acts.”
He explains: “We deal with high impact, low occurrence events. In an emergency, town residents should call 9-1-1, the fire department, or the police department, not the EMA. After those departments manage the crisis, we will manage the aftermath. What we do might be called chaos prevention.”
Manni points out that the agency “finds best practices and plans and prepares for those high impact emergencies that are not daily occurrences here in Smithfield. The largest part of the job is preparedness. That is 75 percent of what we do, he comments.
Manni’s job is part-time, and all of the personnel who support the EMA are volunteers. There are three deputy directors: Leo Kennedy, Steve Serapiglia, and Scott Caron, and two assist directors: Paul Silvestri and Mike Lepore. In addition, there are some 24 people who serve as members of the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT). Individual units come from Greenville Baptist Church, St. Michael’s Church, and Fidelity Investments. There is also a town-wide team. Currently a dozen students from the high school are part way through training.
The volunteers receive 20 hours of training in such critical skills as identifying and anticipating hazards, extinguishing small fires, conducting light search and rescue operations, setting up medical treatment areas, and applying basic medical techniques. The CERT program is run under the auspices of Citizens Corps, a grass roots movement under the aegis of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
“We are always looking for more organizations to form teams,” says Manni.
Anticipating needs is a big part of what the department does. No two emergencies are alike, and advance planning requires a lot of “what ifs,” not just “what happened last time.” There might never have been a last time in this community, but the possibility of first times always exists. Also, best practices evolve over time. The energetic director offers an example.
For a long time the EMA stocked quantities of bottled water that they could make available in the event of a disaster which compromised the safety of the local water supply. After a while they found they had substantial amounts of it on hand that had to be discarded because it was too old to safely distribute.
As a result, the agency re-thought its strategy on this subject. They no longer keep bottled water in reserve. Now, the department has a supply of sturdy collapsible water containers they can distribute if needed and a list of safe water sources in the community which it can give out.
“Besides planning and organizing and training volunteers, we seek, apply for, and report on emergency management preparedness grants, maintain compliance with federal and state requirements for continuing funding, and we maintain and deploy a cache of specialized equipment,” Todd mentions.
He adds, “We also conduct public education at various events and along with the fire department’s EMS division we manage and maintain the availability of publicly accessible AEDS (defibrillators) at beaches, ballfields, and other publicly owned places.”
The department has a proposed annual budget for fiscal year 2018-19 of a bit more than $32,000. Each year the budget is supplemented with funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Grant funded awards typically range between $12,000 and $20,000. This money is usually used to buy durable and specialized equipment that is deployed for emergency situations which require materials that are not among the assets the town normally has available.
The agency is right in step with the times. For example, Manni points out, it monitors social media in emergency situations. In the event of a code red (major catastrophe) it has the capability to call every land line telephone in Smithfield with a warning or message. They also aim to have as many people as possible register their mobile devices via the town website. All information the EMA gathers is treated as confidential and is not shared or sold.
In addition, there is a special needs emergency registry offered in conjunction with The Rhode Island Department of Health and the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency (RIMEA). This service allows individuals who use life support systems, such as oxygen, dialysis, a respirator and the like to register so that in the event of a power outage or other disaster, their needs can be met. More information is available at www.health.ri.gov/emregistry or by calling the Smithfield EMA (number listed at end of story).
The department also assists in special events in the community such as the annual fireworks display, parades, and athletic contests. The EMA hosts planning sessions with event organizers and public safety departments, reviewing such things as crowd management, traffic control, and evacuation plans in case of occurrences such as a surprise thunderstorm during an outdoor event.
“My goals for these events is that people who attend them have a great time and never even give a thought to what we have to consider and plan for. Time and again, we are able to nip problems in the bud because of deliberate planning. Developing problems are stopped because the contingencies are in place,” Manni declares.
“The job is never done,” he continues. “You have to get it right.”
To contact the Emergency Management Agency call 401-231-1033, or e-mail Todd Manni at email@example.com. You can also visit the website www.smithfieldema.org.