Emergency responders of all sorts gather this week in Pendleton for the state’s annual Local Emergency Planning Committee Conference.
Michael Heffner, assistant chief deputy of Emergency Response Services with the Oregon Office of the State Fire Marshal, explained that the 1986 federal Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act gives communities the right to know what types of hazardous chemicals are in their area and requires setting up local emergency planning committees to develop contingency plans for emergencies in their districts.
In Oregon, those districts mirror county lines. The committees need to consist of a diverse group, from firefighters to health officials to people that use certain hazardous materials. That array of knowledge can help identify and find ways to close gaps in responses.
“Our reason for coming to Pendleton was strategic,” Heffner said. While Umatilla County’s committee is well established, other Eastern Oregon counties, including Wallowa, Wheeler, Baker, Grant, Gilliam and Sherman counties, are working on their committees.
Most attendees were from Oregon, but a few came from Washington and Idaho. Chad Hawkins, assistant deputy chief with the state fire marshal, said that was a boon.
“We want to open it up to everyone to see how folks do it outside the borders,” he said.
Federal emergency funds covered the cost of the three-and-half day event that began Monday and concludes Thursday at the city’s convention center. Air Force veteran and environmental engineer Bob Campbell helped deliver an 8-hour class Monday on using the local committees to build “whole community engagement” when it comes to dealing with emergencies. His company, Alliance Solutions Group, Inc. of Newport News, Virginia, helped Klamath County set up its hazardous rail plan, he said, and about 40 people participated in Monday’s class. That’s a good turnout, especially for a rural community, he said.
The conference also covered the use of drone programs, developing a hazardous materials command and integrating emergency teams from the local to federal levels.
Greg Noll, of Pennsylvania, delivered Tuesday morning’s keynote address. Noll built a 44-year career in fire service and emergency response. He spoke about leadership, but also what to takes to do this kind of work. He surveyed the crowd and told them their DNA was a bit different.
Most folks, he said, are the sheep of the community, the public who just wants to go about their lives. Then a tiny fraction make up the wolves ready to prey on those sheep.
But the firefighters, police and related emergency personnel he addressed make up about 2 percent of the population. They are the sheep dogs, he told them, the protectors.
And when the public calls for help, he said, they expect emergency responders to solve their problems.