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Howard officials: Progress in emergency preparedness since 9/11

Howard officials: Progress in emergency preparedness since 9/11

Since 2004, three years after the the 9/11 terrorist attacks, FEMA has designated September as National Preparedness Month, sharing safety tips, strategies and precautions to follow in man-made and natural disasters.

To prepare for any emergency, National Center for Citizen Safety founder and president Lois Blevins says communities nationwide must learn to A.C.T. in any given situation or disaster: assess, cover yourself and tell someone.

Blevins, also an employee of the U.S. Secret Service, said the nonprofit organization, which uses the acronym NCCSAFE, carries the same message throughout the year to promote education and public awareness of proper emergency preparedness in everyday life. The organization has recently focused on active shooting scenarios, highlighting the Columbia mall shooting in 2014 that left three people dead, including the shooter.

"I think [FEMA] has made a lot of progress educating and empowering Americans to prepare for all types of emergencies," said Blevins, an Ellicott City resident. "I think it's just important for everyone to make an emergency plan and that plan should involve all kinds of things."

Food, water, flashlights with extra batteries and a first aid kit are common additions to an emergency preparedness kit, she said. However, residents should go the extra mile to develop an emergency plan for their homes and practice its step-by-step procedure in the event of an emergency.

Her own family's emergency preparedness plan has evolved over time, Blevins said, adapting to different types of emergencies, such as the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

"Previous to that, it was more of a fire preparedness that I had done with the kids, with the water and 'OK, we're going to meet across the street at the tree in front of our neighbor's house,'" she said. "It's not just a fire drill anymore. It's a fire drill, it's a natural hazard evacuation and it's active assailant preparedness. There's a lot more that the public and businesses has to carry in its toolbox."

Chas Eby, spokesman for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, said residents must understand the basics of preparedness and what to do if something happens. As questions arise, people should already know some of the answers.

"If it's a power outage, how do you get in contact with your power company?" Eby said. "If it's something more serious like a flood, how do you communicate with your family members or neighbors or friends to make sure they're safe?"

Emergency preparedness is a problem-solving effort, requiring information sharing and resource coordination and support. These do not exclude any hazard, Eby said.

One particular challenge facing MEMA officials is conveying an understanding to the public that disasters may happen in their area despite some disbelief.

"It's easy to turn on the TV and see a disaster occurring in another community and saying things like, 'Oh, well tornadoes don't happen here,' or, 'Earthquakes don't typically happen here,'" Eby said. "The truth is that it's really tough to predict exactly what could happen. When something unexpected happens, you want to be able to at least know the basics of how to be prepared."

For the nation, the terrorist attacks in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Shanksville, Pa., on Sept. 11, 2001 clearly showed the importance of emergency preparedness, said Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman. And July's Ellicott City flooding emphasized its necessity on a local level.

High waters gutted Main Street businesses and residents a month ago, leaving nothing but damage in its path. As the county continues to clean up and restore the historic district, Kittleman said Ellicott City has become "the poster child" for emergency preparedness.

"There's no way we would be where we are in our recovery had we not been prepared ahead of time" with the county's emergency operations plan, Kittleman said. "Having a recovery organization already planned before we had this disaster helped us tremendously in getting ourselves moving on recovery. We basically had a framework started right away on how we were going to work on recovery."

With hopes of reopening Main Street to the public by the end of the month, Kittleman said the Ellicott City flooding was "a clarion call for folks who realize they need to be thinking about being prepared before you need to be prepared."

Days, weeks and months after 9/11, Laurel resident Richard Blankenship, who was a Howard County volunteer firefighter at the time, said he remembered dozens of emergency calls flooding the Fire Department, each made by scared and concerned citizens. Department personnel responded to several reports of unknown packages in the mail, white powders or boxes on properties.

"It got to the point where we ran so many calls that the county got the police department, fire department and others together who handled all the calls [to hold off on responding] unless there was something serious they already knew about," said Blankenship, who is now a current Laurel volunteer firefighter

Pending an investigation, Blankenship said officials then determined if any additional equipment was necessary at the scene, such as fire trucks and ambulances. Although the fire department's prior preparedness training was effective in emergency response time and assistance, the events of 9/11 were still unimaginable.

"Nobody expected that to happen," Blankenship said. "Are you really prepared for that? How do you prepare for that? You prepare for any kind of emergency and you take it as it comes."

State and local preparedness have greatly improved over the last 15 years, Blevins said, but NCCSAFE still recognizes the need to do more, particularly in the classroom.

"There needs to be physical, traditional briefing in classrooms," she said. 'We're getting inundated with digital stuff. We need to be face-to-face. We need to be able to talk to our community."

There are plenty of websites sharing emergency preparedness tips, but only if the community goes looking for it. By bringing preparedness to the classroom, awareness will skyrocket, Blevins said, with families developing their own plans and staying in touch with the county alert system.

"Maybe prior to 9/11, we wouldn't have had so much saturation or attention on emergency responders training, maybe do them once every five years. Now, we're doing it yearly and we should be doing it yearly," Blevins said. "But I don't think we're done. I don't think we've done enough on educating. I think across America we need a lot more face-to-face with our communities."

Remembering 9/11

In honor of those who lost their lives on Sept. 11, 2001, several remembrance events will be held throughout Howard County:

• Howard County Police Foundation's 25th annual Police Pace 5K: The one-mile walk and run will be held on Sunday, Sept. 11 at Centennial Park in Ellicott City. Registration will begin at 8 a.m. followed by a 9/11 memorial ceremony at 8:30 a.m. The Police Pace will begin at 9:11 a.m., with all proceeds going to families of Howard County officers killed or injured in the line of duty, scholarships and department funding for special needs. The event will also feature 50 performance awards, food, children's activities and prizes. To register, go to www.policepace.com.

• 9/11 Remembrance Wreath Laying Ceremony: Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman and other county officials will hold a memorial service at Centennial Park in Ellicott City for those who lost their lives on Sept. 11, 2001. The ceremony will begin at 8:46 a.m.

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