Some grumbled that it was years overdue, but most officials at a Thursday meeting agreed working on how to make the Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program more effective was a worthwhile endeavor.
After nearly six hours, some 50 people at the meeting concluded that the program needs a definite chain of command, starting with a small governing board and an incident commander. The specifics of the structure will be nailed down at 4 p.m. Wednesday at the Pendleton Justice Center.
Thursday's action was prompted by a harsh assessment from a Louisiana-based consulting group, which said CSEPP is extremely ill-prepared to handle chemical weapons emergencies. Its study ranked local CSEPP agencies at the lowest level, citing in-fighting and unnecessary delays. One such delay, for overpressurizing Good Shepherd Medical Center, nearly cost $375,000 because officials couldn't agree on a satisfactory design within five years. A federal agency "recovered" the funds by pulling them from another project.
Locally, CSEPP is designed to protect the nearly 20,000 people living near the Umatilla Chemical Depot from a chemical weapons accident. But after a false alarm from emergency sirens in December, many said the system lacked effectiveness and accountability.
Now the group is looking at creating a chain of command that would put several local people in charge of the program, with one person heading the various agencies similar to NATO operations.
"I see it as a very workable chain of command, something that's been missing from this for some time," said Jim Stearns, chief of the Hermiston Fire and Emergency Services District.
Stearns said that if the structure were modeled on how local fire departments handle large incidents, one person would be on call at all times. So, for example, if the incident commander were visiting friends in Seattle, a pager would be left with an assistant.
Casey Beard, director of Morrow County CSEPP, presented the idea of a "CSEPP czar" to oversee operations of the various agencies involved and to hold the players accountable. But Beard added, noting that he rarely works only 40 hours a week, that the need for more workers may be bigger than the need for a "czar."
"One of the problems that needs to be addressed is, do we have enough serfs to go around?" he said rhetorically. "We need to see, do we have the right number of people and the right mix of skills, because I don't think we do."
The discussions came following a presentation from Innovative Emergency Management, Inc., the consulting group that found many problems in the current structure of the system, including;
*An excessively slow and error-prone federal budgeting process. The errors are exacerbated by a lack of trust between the state and local counties.
*Too many controller units for area reader boards and emergency sirens. "When you add complexity to an issue, you reduce its reliability," said Madhu Beriwal, president of Innovative Emergency Management.
*Umatilla County, though home to five times as many people as Morrow County, has taken a back seat in preparing for a chemical weapons emergency.
The governing board, which would include representatives from the two counties, school districts, the state and more, would focus only on policy, said Stephanie Hallock, a representative for Gov. John Kitzhaber. The board wouldn't supersede the recently-formed Emergency Preparedness Executive Review Panel, which will determine for Kitzhaber if the area is ready for incineration of the depot's stock of weapons, or the Umatilla Chemical Demilitarization Citizens Advisory Commission, which reports to the U.S. Army on the disposal of chemical weapons.
CSEPP currently contains players at the county, state and regional level. With no clear command structure, the various stakeholders butt against the others like, in the words of Umatilla County Commissioner Dennis Doherty, "a bunch of bumper cars."
The study follows another released about three months ago that assessed the equipment in the CSEPP realm.
Beriwal stressed that the various agencies need to work together for the public's benefit. She noted the TV and radio campaign that information officers from seven agencies collaborated on as an example of what can be accomplished together. The TV ads began earlier this week and will run for at least six months. If successful, the campaign will be used in other communities near chemical weapons depots.
"There are a lot of things that we don't do well, but there are some things we do exceedingly well," Beriwal said. "The Umatilla media campaign is one example of this. They are far, far ahead of any other areas for how they reach the public."