Letter Re: LEPCs Show That Help Won’t Be Coming

Mr. Rawles,
Here is my take on the Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) for my hometown.

At risk of preaching to the choir, the Government isn’t coming to help you. We all have seen the horrific images of hurricanes Katrina and Sandy and how the Government response is woefully inadequate to help people after these large scale disasters. And in many cases, our current government uses these disasters to further tread on our collective liberty. The quote “Never let a crisis go to waste” leaps to mind. It occurred to me that the government is really made up of people, and most people are not inherently evil, so there must be some reason for the responses being so bad or even counterproductive.

I decided I would investigate, and in the process of scratching around I became an infiltrator. In response to the Bhopal disaster in late 1984 Congress passed and President Reagan signed the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986. Included in this act was the formation of Local Emergency Planning Committees (LEPC). The committee is formed from:
• Elected state and local officials
• Police, fire, civil defense, and public health professionals
• Environment, transportation, and hospital officials
• Facility representatives
• Representatives from community groups and the media

I found the LEPC of my community in my searching for the “Emergency Response” searches in my local government. The committee had two vacant slots for representatives of community groups, and I decided to volunteer to fill one of them, representing my neighborhood. This was the first indication of one basic problem the government response has. I live in a fairly large city with more than enough people to staff this committee, but so very few civic minded people willing to volunteer about eight hours a year to attend a meeting.

I was voted in at the next meeting of the city council and attended the first of eight quarterly meetings in my two year term soon afterward. You have to keep in mind the LEPC was formed in response to a large chemical spill, so its’ focus is on hazardous materials (HAZMAT) accidents. The mileage of your LEPC may vary depending on the entities in your area, but mine was represented by:
•          A city councilman
•          The LEPC coordinator (City Employee)
•          The water / sewer company
•          A power plant
•          A railroad
•          Fire Department
•          Police Department
•          The hospital / health department
•          Two companies who deal with HAZMAT in their operation
•          A reporter for the local paper
•          Me

First a note on overall attendance, I attended all but one meeting when I happened to be away on a business trip. As one of the “Voting Members” I was provided minutes on the proceedings along with the attendance record for the meeting I missed. The city councilman made it to half of the meetings, the LEPC coordinator was present at all of them. The police and fire departments were represented at all the meetings while the other entities were present for six of the eight meetings. The reporter came to two meetings, and I was never joined by a second community representative.

I didn’t expect perfect attendance, but this told me a few things. The government people (with the exception of the councilman) were very dedicated and attended all the meetings with something to say to the group. The commercial entities attended the bare minimum (75%) of meetings they are mandated to attend. The reporter came twice; once to take a tour of a newly opened police headquarters building when we held a meeting there and the other time to grill one of the commercial entities about a chemical spill during the quarter. (It was properly contained, reported, and cleaned by the way) I was the only civilian citizen who bothered to attend any meeting. I took notes and asked questions, and passed my overarching views on the meetings to the editor of our neighborhood newsletter / web site, but was only mentioned once there in two years. The reporter ran the two stories about the new police HQ and the spill, without ever really mentioning the LEPC. My take away was the government is willing, the companies will do something with a gun to their head, but the community doesn’t care until their hair is on fire.

This LEPC doesn’t get together and game all the likely scenarios like flooding, hurricanes, or civic unrest except where those things may cause a HAZMAT issue. As far as I can tell, my local government doesn’t do that at all. We did speak about power outages and minor flooding from a few storms but it wasn’t very in-depth or detailed. In a flooding event, several cars (with people in them) were swept up in some rapidly rising water. Luckily there were no casualties but I discovered my police and fire departments don’t have a single boat for emergency response. It isn’t that they are stupid, they have requested boats for years. The community doesn’t want to spend the money on getting one, maintaining it and training people with it. But here were 10-15 people screaming for the fire / police to rescue them and all they could do was try to throw them a life ring on a line. After that, the city council managed to get a couple Zodiacs appropriated.

A big concern of the LEPC is evacuating an area in case of a bad spill. If you evacuate people you have to have vehicles, (We will use the school buses) policies, (Yes, you can bring your pets on leashes or in cages) and a place to put them. Our place(s) to put people are in the school gyms or community recreation centers. I found out not a single one of these places has backup generator power. The new recreation center had it in the plans at the request of the LEPC, but it was the first item that got cut when the budget started to get overrun. So if conditions are right, refugees could find themselves in a dark and uncomfortable place in an emergency.

Speaking of backup generators, the city hospital proudly announced they had finished installing theirs at the second meeting I attended. My first reaction was shock –they didn’t have one already? But I recovered enough to ask some very telling questions. Was it a full backup? “No, it covers the emergency room, ICU, and operating rooms but not the other rooms, waiting areas etc.” How much fuel supply do you have on hand? “Oh lots! 500 gallons I think.” How long can you run on that much fuel? -“Gee, I don’t know.” These folks try to run from the meeting now when I see them, because I haven’t gotten the answer yet and I don’t plan on letting up.

The water company chimed in that they had completed upgrading theirs after discovering it wasn’t up to snuff during a power outage they had. It seems the backup generator wasn’t large enough to maintain positive pressure between the clean water and the sewer water, so they had to close the valves and cut off water to the whole city until they got power back to keep from contaminating their drinking water. So I asked, how long will your fuel supply last? -“Gee, I don’t know.” These folks hate my returning questions too –but haven’t figured out testing it and getting my answer.

The police station has a generator that will keep the radios & phones working for three days. The fire station headquarters has the same, but none of the seven satellite stations do.

The police are borderline outgunned. My city is large but not especially violent; we had zero murders in 2012. The cops all carry Glock 22s and have a Remington 870 in their patrol cars, but the armory only has four Smith and Wesson M&P AR-15s, three Springfield M1As and two Remington 700 sniper rifles. These weapons are only issued when there is a call for them or signed out for range time.

The Fire Chief and a few other high ranking guys carry Glock 22s but they don’t have an armory or allow the firemen to carry on duty. The city eight fire stations and each has a mix of tanker, ladder and rescue vehicles and they have a great record for response time. But the prepper in me folds my arms and wonders what happens when multiple large fires break out due to civil unrest –hopefully the neighboring towns won’t have the same trouble and can lend a hand.

So my overall take on local government response is this: They do what they can, but they can’t do much. Every expense on people, equipment and training is scrutinized (rightly so) and kept down to respond to the everyday events. My police are great, they are visible and respond very quickly. The fire department is too. My government wants to be ready and respond to everything, but can’t justify the expense to the everyday taxpayer so many things get left undone. A single black swan event can completely overwhelm my city’s response capability. I am no proponent for the government trying to be all things to all people, so really their readiness is good given their budget. All I can do is try to help educate my fellow citizens to prepare themselves for these events and not to rely on the government. And by the way, I just signed up for another two year hitch on the LEPC.