Sheriff explains his view of EMA change

Washington County Sheriff Larry Mincks told the county commissioners and a roomful of county volunteer fire company representatives Tuesday that he had no interest in firing or hiring an emergency management agency director if administration of the county EMA office is given to the sheriff’s office.

“We’re only interested in helping the EMA provide quality service to the county,” he said. “And I’m not implying that the current EMA director is not doing his job. I have worked with him on many occasions and think he is doing a very good job.”

Under a proposal currently being considered by the Washington County Commissioners, EMA director Jeff Lauer’s office would be supervised through the sheriff’s department.

The commissioners called a meeting Tuesday at the Emergency Operations Center on Davis Avenue to discuss the idea with the sheriff and local first responders who have expressed concern about how the change in EMA oversight would impact them.

“A few weeks ago the sheriff offered to take over administration of the EMA that is currently the responsibility of the county commissioners,” said Ron Feathers, president of the county commission.

Lauer is the lone employee in the EMA office which is responsible for developing and coordinating plans for a variety of potential emergency situations with area agencies like fire departments, hospitals, law enforcement, chemical plants, and other entities.

Lauer declined to comment Tuesday on the proposal to move his office under the sheriff’s administration, noting it would be up to the commissioners whether to accept the sheriff’s proposal.

During a presentation of his proposal Tuesday, Mincks said his office is designed to operate 24/7 and would therefore be ideally suited to provide supervision of the EMA.

He also said his office is not interested in controlling or supervising the duties of any fire or emergency medical services organization.

“We’re not interested in incident command at any situation that requires the attention or services of a fire department or EMS organization,” Mincks said, adding that his office would only become involved if a crime occurred that was related to a fire or other emergency situation.

“We respond to all incidents to determine if suspicious circumstances were involved or if we think criminal actions were a contributing factor in a death or injury,” he said. “We rely on local fire departments and the state fire marshal to determine the need for further investigation.”

Mark Wile, president of the Washington County Fire Chiefs Association, said the sheriff’s office has always worked well with area first responders, but expressed concern that EMA funding would also be controlled by the sheriff.

“You’ve helped us out a lot, and we can’t say enough good about the sheriff’s office, and this is nothing against you personally, but what about your successor?” Wile said, noting that a future sheriff could take over the EMA funding.

Mincks said his office would have no control over the EMA funding, and a committee could be developed with representatives from fire companies, county government, and township trustees to determine how those funds should be distributed.

Wile also questioned where the EMA director’s loyalties would lie in the event of an emergency if the sheriff’s office had oversight of the agency. He was concerned that the director’s position would influence him to take care of the sheriff’s office needs first.

“We believe that during an emergency the EMA should stand alone, and not be supporting any other county entity,” Wile said.

He also noted that the Ohio Fire Chiefs Association and Ohio Municipal League do not favor giving county sheriff’s offices administrative oversight of local EMAs.

Feathers said his biggest concern is that the county commissioners, who currently have that responsibility, would not know what to do if a major catastrophe occurs.

“If someone calls me in the middle of the night and says there’s no power in the entire county, what do I do?” he asked. “Right now we don’t know. And that’s not Jeff’s fault. We simply don’t have the expertise to oversee emergency services. But I believe the sheriff’s department has the institutional knowledge and staff to handle this.”

Mincks said if his office is given the EMA oversight he would recommend training volunteers who could help local agencies during major disasters, and provide proactive training, mock drills, and planning for dealing with floods and other catastrophic emergencies.

“We have met with the EMA director on several occasions to discuss operations,” the sheriff concluded. “In the past we have worked very closely during several declared emergencies. Some of the areas I’ve mentioned or suggested may be in place, but they could be analyzed and improved. It is our objective to improve the EMA in order for it to be a viable resource in the time of a disaster.”

Mincks suggested the commissioners approve the administration change for a year, beginning July 1, and if the situation does not work out the supervisory duties can be returned to the commissioners at any time.

But Wiles said the county fire chiefs association would be wary of that recommendation because such one-year often end up continuing for several years.

Feathers said in spite of the sheriff’s suggestion there is no rush to give supervision of the EMA to the sheriff’s office.

“There is no timeline for us to make a decision,” he said following Tuesday’s meeting, adding that the main purpose of the session was to hear the sheriff’s proposal and receive some feedback from the first responders.