Politics & Government

County emergency plan easily accessible to residents

This story is part of a series for Sunshine Week, a national effort highlighting access to public records.

If there is ever a large-scale emergency in Whatcom County, officials and responders have a plan, but do you know what it is?

As part of Sunshine Week, news organizations from around the country were asked to get a copy of their local Comprehensive Emergency Response Plan.

Getting the plan is easy, once you know where to look. The plan is available to the public at the Bellingham Public Library. Just ask library staff to pull it out from the reference desk so you can look through it.

The Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office Division of Emergency Management is responsible for keeping order during large-scale disasters. Federal law requires emergency management agencies to have a comprehensive plan, covering how each agency would respond to various situations, how government would function and how citizens would cope.

“It lays the foundation for how we plan and respond and recover from emergencies or disasters,” said Don Boyd, deputy director of the department. “It’s like an orchestra, which has to have sheet music to know how they interact with horns and strings and percussion — there has to be the full set of sheet music for the orchestra to perform.”

Some items in the plan include:

Organizational diagrams of who reports to whom and descriptions of roles for various government and volunteer agencies.

A list of priorities of whom and what to protect first. Protecting life is the first priority, followed by critical assets and public and private property.

How the public would be notified of an emergency. Ways include: sending information out through dispatch centers, activation of community sirens, walking door-to-door and contacting the media.

How food and water would be distributed to those in need. Agencies that may be called on to help, depending on the emergency, include: the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army and the Whatcom County Health Department.

What agencies would respond to a hazardous material situation and how they would organize nearby residents to evacuate them.

While Whatcom County’s plan is available to the public through the library system, library employees say people rarely ask to see it.

The plan hasn’t been updated since February 2004, but has been reviewed every year as required by law. An updated copy is expected to be made public later this year, Boyd said.

But, county citizens don’t really need to worry about what’s in the plan, unless they really want to, Boyd said.“What the public needs to know isn’t necessarily in the plan,” he said. “What the public needs to know is basic info: stay off 911, don’t call 911 unless you really have a life-threatening emergency, and plan for three days, three ways — you should plan for 72 hours to exist on your own — have food, water, first aid supplies and a family plan.”

The county is required to list places with hazardous materials and a description of how agencies would respond to an emergency in those areas. Whatcom County include this in a different document: the What-com County Local Emergency Planning Committee Hazardous Materials Plan, which lists all places with hazardous materials, including Georgia-Pacific West Inc., Alcoa Intalco Works and ConocoPhillips. This document is also available to the public at the library.

One thing the emergency plan is missing is a comprehensive list of evacuation routes.

This omission is purposeful, Boyd said, because he and the planning committee didn’t want to teach people to go a certain way, only to have a bridge or street on that path go out.

“After the big earthquake, we don’t know which bridges, which overpasses, which roads will still be open,” Boyd said. “But we do have a master plan of interstates, state routes and county roads.”

The Whatcom County emergency management plan is being used as a template for the new City of Bel-lingham Office of Emergency Management’s upcoming plan. Bellingham will soon have its own emer-gency management department and its own plan, Boyd said. In its plan will be descriptions of how the city and county agencies would work together in an emergency.

Individual towns and areas have created their own plans, but are still covered by the county. Areas that have approached Boyd seeking help to create their own plans include Birch Bay and Sudden Valley.