On a mild winter afternoon, the State Emergency Operations Center at MEMA, the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, is super quiet. The only signs of activity in the large room, which functions as the nerve center for the state's emergency preparedness activities, are images of traffic and weather feeds on a huge bank of 36 videos monitors that take up an entire wall.
During a statewide emergency, such as a blizzard or terrorist attack, the center would be staffed by nearly 100 experts from state, local, and federal agencies wearing color-coded reflective vests and sitting in front of 150 computer monitors. The room, which is a bit like NASA's Mission Control Center, hums with activity during crises.
In 2016, Maryland experienced two presidential-declared emergencies: winter storm Jonas that dumped up to 37 inches of snow in parts of Maryland in January, and the July 31 flash flooding in Ellicott City that killed two people and caused an estimated $22 million in damage. The center was also activated during Fleet Week and in advance of Hurricane Matthew.
"Most emergencies can be dealt with on the local level," said Russell Strickland, MEMA's executive director. "For us, it's an emergency when a situation goes beyond that of what local jurisdictions can handle on their own."
Located on the grounds of Camp Fretterd Military Reservation in Reisterstown, MEMA is part of the Maryland Military Department and is responsible for coordinating the state's response in any major emergency or disaster. The agency supports local governments and coordinates assistance with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other federal partners.
For Stickland and his staff of 71 experts, responding to emergencies with a cool, level head is something that is almost second nature. Critical decisions can be made in minutes when there is a crisis.
"Practice makes it less overwhelming when there is a disaster," said Chas Eby, MEMA's outreach branch manager. "Blame has never pulled someone out of a fire or stopped a hurricane from coming."
"We're trained to make decisions," added Kate Hession, MEMA's director of operations. To ensure that everyone knows exactly how to function during emergencies, MEMA runs "table-top" exercises that simulate situations such as active shooters, natural disasters or other hazards.
Much like the military, MEMA operates under the Incident Command System (ICS). First developed in response to coordinating wildfires in California and Arizona, ICS is a standardized protocol that provides a common hierarchy and response through which responders from multiple agencies can be effective.
In addition to the State Emergency Operations Center, MEMA houses the Maryland Joint Operations Center (MJOC), the agency's 24-hour communications and operations center that is staffed by three civilians and up to two National Guard staff.
The MJOC is the first line of contact when emergencies arise. While MEMA's website has a plethora of information for the public, Strickland said in case of emergency people should always dial 9-1-1 or contact their local first responders.
While MEMA has state-of-the-art technology, it also employs backup generators, satellite phones and old-fashioned land lines. Two red phones, called ring-down lines, connect MEMA with the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant and Peach Bottom Atomic Power Station in Pennsylvania.
"We are activated as a state emergency center 24/7," said Strickland, who has been executive director since July 2015. He previously served with MEMA in the early 2000s and was a member of the state's first Hazardous Materials Response Team.
The terrorist attacks of 9/11 were a wake-up call for emergency responders to better coordinate their activities, Strickland said.
"In the last 10 to 15 years, emergency planning has grown exponentially," Strickland said.
According to FEMA, 50 colleges and universities currently offer bachelor's degrees in emergency management. In Maryland, six colleges and universities offer such degrees.
Cold War evolution
MEMA's lobby houses a 1950s-era civil defense diorama of a nuclear bomb shelter complete with cans and thick walls — a reminder of the evolution of emergency preparedness, from its origins with the air-raid wardens who protected civilians from air raids during World War ll to the "duck and cover" drills of the 1960s.
Until 1988, MEMA was located at the State Police complex in Pikesville, in a bunker built during the Cold War. MEMA was first activated on Dec. 13, 1999, in anticipation of disruptions due to Y2K, the concerns over whether computers could deal with dates beyond Dec. 31, 1999.
"Zika, Ebola, HPA1 (chicken flu), there are so many different kinds of events that we are involved in the planning for," Strickland said. "Years ago, we just handled hurricanes and snowstorms."
While keeping the public alerted to the threat of nuclear weapons is still part of MEMA's portfolio, the agency's outreach also extends to helping businesses cope with disasters.
"We're finding that for communities to be resilient, private-sector businesses need to get involved," Eby said. "If there is a disaster that affects your community, you want your bank, ATM, and pharmacy to be up and running. We've asked businesses across Maryland: 'What can we help you to do to stay up and running?'"
For the public, MEMA's website includes tips for taking children to school after disasters, pet and livestock measures before emergencies and advice for boaters about hurricanes.
MEMA suggests everyone have an emergency "go" kit that holds "anything that enables you to be safe," Eby said. "It could be a backpack with a flashlight and granola bars or it could mean stocking your house with candles and extra food and water."
For all the hours of planning and confronting emergencies, do MEMA's decision-makers ever get stressed out?
"I'm 63, I've been a volunteer firefighter since I was 16," said Strickland, the agency's executive director. "There is not a whole lot I haven't seen. I've got to be calm and cool about it."
Added Hession, the operations director: "I shut the door to my office for 10 minutes. I have two children under the age of 12. Sleep is overrated."