Sheriff’s office may oversee EMA

A week after first publicly discussing the possibility, Washington County Commissioners are still mulling over the idea of transferring their oversight of the county’s emergency management services to the county sheriff’s office, and local emergency responders are wondering what the shift would mean for them.

At its core, the change would mean the sheriff’s office would take over administrative oversight for the Washington County Emergency Management Agency, duties that include monitoring training for county emergency responders and reviewing EMA reports. Meanwhile the commissioners would still retain control when it came to staffing and budgeting the EMA, and the EMA itself would maintain the same duties and control, said County Commissioner Ron Feathers.

The county EMA is responsible for devising an emergency plan for multiple potential emergency situations such as floods, storms, or mass shootings, and coordinating those plans with area agencies like fire departments, hospitals, law enforcement, chemical plants, and more.

However, a potential shift in oversight will not likely occur anytime soon, said Feathers. The commissioners first hope to get feedback on the idea and see what happens with proposed state legislation that would give such a transfer of duties a more solid legal basis, he said.

“We’re just discussing it. It’s a long ways away,” said Feathers. “We want to make sure we’re doing the right thing and we want to see what the legislature will do.”

The Washington County Sheriff’s Office favors the idea. The office, with its round-the-clock staff, will be well equipped to oversee the agency with no additional staffing or funding needed to do so, said Major Brian Schuck.

“I think we work well with all the emergency responders. I think it’s a good fit for us,” he said.

The sheriff’s office possesses a great deal of experience in emergency response and training, said Schuck.

That is one of the main reasons the commissioners would feel comfortable transferring EMA oversight, added Feathers.

“I’m not sure we’re on top of it as well as we should be. A lot of us do not have knowledge to get into the nuances of what we should be doing in an emergency,” Feathers said of the commissioners.

Two other Ohio counties-Guernsey and Lawrence-have transferred EMA administrative oversight to the county sheriff’s office.

In a similar situation, the Washington County Commissioners transferred oversight of the county dog warden to the sheriff’s office more than a year ago, and that transition has worked well, said Schuck.

But unlike the dog warden oversight, which includes a budgetary component, supervising the EMA would not include budgetary discretion for the sheriff’s office. The sheriff’s office would not be entitled to any of the EMA’s funding, said Schuck.

Much of the agency’s budget-$149,510.80 for this year-comes through grants.

However, the Washington County Fire Chiefs Association has several questions and concerns about the idea.

Among other things, the association is concerned the authoritative position of the sheriff’s office would put it in a position to receive preferential treatment when it comes to how the EMA’s assets are distributed, said Mark Wile, president of the county fire chiefs association.

“During a disaster we really need to have a standalone entity that would have unbiased decisions about where the resources go,” he said.

Local fire and EMT departments often benefit from equipment obtained through EMA grants.

While the local fire chiefs association wants more information before definitively opposing or supporting the idea, both the Ohio Fire Chiefs Association and Southeast Fire Chiefs Association have come out against the idea of sheriff’s office’s becoming administratively involved with county EMAs, according to Wile.

Currently, the commissioners are trying to schedule a meeting with representatives from the fire chiefs association and sheriff’s office to discuss those concerns, said Feathers.