Planning for worst-case scenario is business as usual for emergency director

November 2, 2010

By Warren Kagarise

King County faces risks from earthquakes, floods, terrorism, volcanic eruptions and more than a dozen other threats.

For Hillman Mitchell, director of the King County Office of Emergency Management, planning for a worst-case scenario is business as usual. The longtime emergency planner and Sammamish resident settled into the role Aug. 3 after a stint as the emergency management coordinator in Tukwila.

Mitchell served in the South King County city as the region braced for a destructive Green River flood exacerbated by the storm-damaged Howard Hanson Dam. Though the flood did not occur, the effort — and a candid assessment of potential damage across the region — earned Mitchell respect from leaders in other cities.

“Obviously, the Green River planning activity really brought together a lot of those collaborative and cooperative opportunities to look at how we respond, not just from a city’s perspective, but as we respond to disasters that don’t respect political boundaries,” he said.

Before the Tukwila post, Mitchell served as a government liaison for the local American Red Cross chapter and, in the process, learned many of the emergency response plans in cities throughout the region.

Mitchell succeeded Robin Friedman, a former Seattle Public Utilities emergency management director, at the county Office of Emergency Management. The department chief supervises 18 employees at the Emergency Communications and Coordination Center in Renton, 11 employees at the 911 office in South Seattle and a $23 million budget.

Mitchell recently discussed the job, the role of the county in a disaster and the steps residents can take to prepare for emergencies.

How does King County assist the 39 cities during a disaster and the subsequent response?

“By and large, what the county does is, we work collaboratively with the cities and with other associations in unincorporated King County to ensure that those programs, No. 1 have the material, No. 2 we’re available to help with some of the training, and No. 3 the communication and connectedness that needs to be done with these groups within the Citizen Corps program.”

What steps does the county Office of Emergency Management enact to jumpstart the recovery after a disaster?

“The key to recovery is making sure that we can quickly enable the private sector to re-establish their critical resources, and for families and communities to get back in business. There’s a critical link between recovery and making sure we have institutions — like schools — operational and things of that sort. People can’t go back to work until their kids can go to school, and health care needs to be established, so that people can maintain their routine medical needs and take care of their critical medical needs as well.”

How can residents in rural and unincorporated King County prepare for disasters?

“The main thing is, individuals and families need to be personally prepared. We’ve had a program for quite some time called 3 Days 3 Ways, which helps with all-hazard personal preparedness. The other thing they can do is reach out to their community, whether they’re in a closely coupled neighborhood, a physical community or they have a social community. What I mean by that is, making sure that they can ensure that, especially people who may have additional needs, are identified and that they can work together to take care of people in the initial phases of an emergency.”

Everybody hears a lot about earthquakes and floods. What potential disasters should receive more attention and planning?

“The highest number of disasters that impact the Northwest are windstorms. We will see windstorms not only in the wintertime, but also in the spring and fall. We are susceptible to these microbursts of weather patterns throughout the Northwest that can sometimes disrupt power, can down trees and can disrupt our transportation corridor. That’s probably the No. 1 thing that people need to be aware of.”

How might the ongoing King County budget crisis affect emergency planning and response?

“Anytime we see a downturn in revenues and financial resources, it impacts all aspects of our service delivery. In the county, we’re currently working through a variety of channels to ensure that we can provide the resources that we need during a disaster. Even though we may see a reduction in service during steady state — or during normal business — emergency management is not something that we can cut short. Part of what we’re doing within the Office of Emergency Management, we’re working collaboratively with the other departments and King County agencies to ensure that we can provide the trained, skilled resources that we need to enable the response to disasters.”

How did your experience as the Tukwila emergency management coordinator prepare you for the county role?

“It provided me with a great understanding of how a local city works collaboratively with their partner cities, and the relationship with King County and the state. Understanding, if you will, how the internal processes of a city government work is essential to understanding how we can serve those cities most effectively.”

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