Emergency Management 101: Planning and Mitigation

By Steve Larson
Public Affairs Office

Planning and mitigation. Two sides of the same coin in the pocket of the Kansas Division of Emergency Management. On one side, analyzing the threats faced by the state and making plans to address them. On the other side, taking action to head off or reduce the damages those threats can cause.

“Emergency management takes an all-hazard approach,” said Bryan Murdie, KDEM Planning and Mitigation branch director. “We look at what could potentially impact the state of Kansas, how it would impact us, what means we have to address those consequences of that disaster.

A new safe room (top) replaces the former outdoor safe room — a buried metal culvert — at Theodore Naish Scout Reservation near Bonner Springs. The new safe room was constructed with mitigation grant funding. (Photos by Jacob Gray, state mitigation officer, Kansas Division of Emergency Management)

“Most commonly, when people think about planning, it’s the development of emergency operations plans and people tend to think that’s only a response and recovery mechanism,” said Murdie, “that once a disaster hits, it’s about coordinating resources to the disaster and how to help that jurisdiction get back to normal. But planning also encompasses the mitigation side of the house and the preparedness side of the house. We look at what activities we can take to actually mitigate the loss of life and property.”

“Mitigation and planning coexist,” said Jacob Gray, state mitigation officer. “Planning didn’t ever used to be a requirement to do mitigation grants. The Disaster and Mitigation Act of 2000 made mitigation planning basically the forefront; you need to have a mitigation plan in order to receive grant funds. By doing that mitigation plan, you’ve brought together stakeholders in the local community, the state and the federal government to look at those risks that are associated with that individual county and plan for what type of projects they need to reduce that risk.”

The state recognizes 22 hazards that may possibly occur in Kansas and a good emergency plan has to take into account each of them, at all levels.

“Ultimately, when a disaster happens, it’s the county’s responsibility to address the consequences of that disaster,” said Murdie. “It’s the state’s responsibility to support them in doing so. So, when it comes to planning or preparedness, we look at how we outline the coordination efforts to that impacted jurisdiction at the local, state and federal levels.”

Murdie explained that all of the state’s 105 counties are required to have an emergency plan and that the plans must be updated every five years.

“They rely heavily on local emergency planning commissions to do a lot of these updates,” said Murdie. “They receive support from us to address any issues they may have in the actual development of the EOP.”

“The common threats that we face in Kansas being tornadoes, floods, risk of wildfires – these are well-known to the stakeholders of Kansas,” explained Gray, “but the lesser-known threats that we still have to plan for with an all-hazard approach are things like foreign animal disease or civil unrest. These are often missed when you have limited resources dedicated to all the different threats and hazards we have.”

When making emergency plans, the state is guided by Kansas Response Plan and looks at four phases of emergency management: planning, mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery. It doing so, the state does not go it alone.

“It’s a whole community approach,” said Murdie. “We plan as state partners, state agencies. We also plan with local counterparts, being local governments. But we also plan with the private sector and citizens alike.”

Integral to those plans are looking at ways to reduce loss before a disaster actually occurs through large and small mitigation projects.

“A safe room in a school, a buyout of a flood-prone property… the acquisition and demolition of that property,” said Gray, “generators, warning signs, weather radios, those are all mitigation activities.”

Gray said another such mitigation project could be the replacement of rural electrical power lines. While Public Assistance funds help replace lines that go down during a tornado or ice storm, such funding does not replace the undamaged lines. A mitigation project would involve replacing those intact lines and making sure they are up to code, reducing the likelihood of a further power outage in the event of the new disaster.

When a mitigation project is proposed and approved, the big question is “How do we pay for it?” Often, the answer is a hazard mitigation grant.

“We have three grant programs,” said Gray, the first being the federal hazard mitigation program that may be activated statewide after a disaster. “Whenever we have declared counties for a disaster, we submit letters of intent to apply for a mitigation grants to every county emergency manager and flood plain manager in the state; that’s an open application period and give them the criteria and a time period to apply for a grant.”

Such grants are usually paid on a 75/25 percent split, 75 percent coming from the federal government, and 25 percent from the state or a local government.

“Then there are two competitive nationwide grants called pre disaster mitigation and flood mitigation assistance,” said Gray. “They come out every year and have different dollar figures with them.”

“Over the past decade, the mitigation program here as the Kansas Division of Emergency Management has invested $90 million toward mitigation projects and that consists of state, local and federal funds,” said Murdie. “The National Institute of Building Science said that for every one dollar spent on mitigation, it saves society six dollars. So, over the past decade, I’d say we successfully have reduced the state of Kansas loss by over $540 million. So, it’s a very effective program.

“If we have a message to our local counties,” said Murdie, “it’s to identify these projects that could be beneficial to them and let us know if they have interest and we can look at funding.”

Murdie noted that mitigation projects do not necessarily involve federal funding.

“Local jurisdictions identify mitigation projects all the time that they actively mitigate themselves without any federal assistance,” said Murdie. “The act of mitigating is a portion of planning. It’s simply the activities that look at preventing disasters or emergencies, decreasing the likelihood of their occurrence, or when they do occur and they’re unavoidable, reducing the loss.”

“I would say about 80 percent of the action items in a mitigation plan are not fundable underneath the federal grants that we administer at KDEM,” said Gray, “but local communities are still working to mitigate those action items.”

Murdie indicated mitigation projects can even be done at the most basic, personal level, involving no outside funding at all.

“These include such simple things as buying home insurance or reducing vegetation around your homes,” said Murdie. “There are a lot of local activities that are performed without any federal or state assistance.”

Murdie encouraged families to conduct their own mitigation analysis.

“First do an assessment, what risks are you actually faced with,” he said. “Then create a plan for how you would react to all those. We encourage family preparedness plans in which you outline contacts for close family members, what medications family members may be on, simple things like stockpiling food or water in the event of a disaster.”

“Conduct exercises,” said Gray. “I have four children of my own. We conduct fire drills at home.”

Planning and mitigation. Two sides of the same coin, a coin found in the pocket of every branch of the Kansas Division of Emergency Management.

“All KDEM branches include an element of planning,” said Murdie, “so we work very closely with all of them.”

But Gray admits to being biased for his side of the coin.

“Some disasters are unavoidable, but I believe that emergency management starts with mitigation and ends with mitigation, because if you do good mitigation, you greatly reduce reliance on the other branches.”