VFDs see no need for EMA changes

A proposal to bring Washington County’s Emergency Management Agency office under the administrative supervision of the sheriff’s office is still under consideration by county commissioners. But area volunteer fire departments continue to question that move.

“Why fix something that’s not broke?” asked Mike Lee, former president of the Washington County Fire Association.

He said the local VFDs work well with EMA director Jeff Lauer.

“Everyone has a good working relationship with Jeff. He’s doing an excellent job,” Lee said. “Maybe the county commissioners need more understanding of what Jeff does on a daily basis.”

Lauer’s office is responsible for developing and coordinating plans and training for a variety of potential emergency situations with area agencies like fire departments, hospitals, law enforcement, chemical plants and other entities.

He also applies for grant funding to help support local first responders.

County commission president Ron Feathers said none of that will change if the EMA is administered through the sheriff’s office.

“The sheriff would not be taking over. We would just be using his skills to help the EMA provide better service for the community,” he said. “Jeff would still answer to the commissioners, and the sheriff would just be assisting the EMA office.”

Feathers added that, by Ohio Revised Code, the sheriff is not allowed to take over the duties of the EMA.

“He cannot hire or fire an EMA director, and he’s not taking over incident command from the fire companies,” he said

Still, Lee said there is concern that the sheriff’s office is taking on too much.

“It looks like they’re going to put everything under one office,” he said. “The sheriff already has the 911 office, dog warden and county dispatching. At what point does his office become overloaded?”

During a meeting with the local fire chiefs and county commissioners last week, Sheriff Larry Mincks presented a draft proposal on how his office would handle supervision of the EMA, which included daily reports on activities of the office; employee evaluations; distribution of grant funding; organizing a group of volunteers to assist during emergencies; disaster planning; developing a database of equipment available from VFDs; and mock drills and training.

“Jeff already does these things, and the state tells us what training we need, and a lot of the volunteer fire companies are already overburdened with training requirements from the state and federal government,” Lee said, adding concern that sheriff’s office supervision of the EMA could mean even more training requirements.

Reno VFD chief Dan Ritchey said the fire companies have no major issues with the sheriff’s office.

“I want to make it clear that this is nothing personal with the sheriff,” he said. “We all have a lot of respect for that office.”

But Ritchey added that law enforcement and emergency management should remain separate entities.

“Personally I would like law enforcement to stay with law enforcement issues, and let the emergency responders do what they’re trained to do,” he said. “And I’m saying that respectfully.”

Ritchey noted during last week’s meeting that Feathers said the commissioners did not have a good knowledge about emergency planning for the county, which was another reason to consider shifting EMA administrative supervision to the sheriff.

“There are plans in place for emergencies-we have them documented,” Ritchey said. “The Local Emergency Planning Commission meets regularly to develop and maintain those plans.”

Lee said he was with Lauer during the June 2012 derecho that left many without power for weeks.

“There was a plan, and everything went well,” he said.

Josh Harris, chief of Lowell-Adams Volunteer Fire and Rescue, agreed.

“Jeff Lauer has done this for 15 years,” he said. “My dad always told me ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ And Jeff has done a lot, not only for the local fire departments, but also for the general public.”

However, at the time of the derecho, many residents and officials throughout the county said they felt the area was not prepared for such a disaster and that communication was lacking in the early days of the outage.

Lauer said shortly after the storm that his office needed better plans in place regarding public notification and a secondary location for the EMA office is one should be needed. Both were a problem during that time.

Like Lee, Harris expressed concern that placing the EMA office under the sheriff’s supervision would put a strain on the sheriff’s office.

“We all like Larry Mincks, and we have no complaints about him, but one guy can’t handle everything,” Harris said. “And there’s concern about what might happen when another sheriff takes Larry’s place down the road.”

He said the area fire departments need to sit down with the commissioners, Lauer, and Mincks to work out any issues, noting that some good ideas are included in the sheriff’s proposal that could be incorporated in the present system without changing the EMA oversight.

Warren Township Trustee Jeff Knowlton, who also serves with the Warren Volunteer Fire Department, said more facts are needed.

“There will be a meeting with the county commissioners (today) and I would like to hear more from them about the reason they want to do this,” he said. “There may be a good reason, and we really need to find out more about this. All the facts are needed before any decisions are made.”

Feathers said all three commissioners are currently investigating what other counties have experienced or are experiencing as they also consider transferring EMA supervision to sheriff’s departments.

“Lawrence County did this five years ago, and Guernsey one year ago,” he said. “We’re still investigating this and waiting on feedback from other counties.”