Mutual aid allows states to help each other during and after disasters

Mutual aid allows states to help each other during and after disasters

Some of the many donations that came in to support California fire survivors.

Summer typically brings wildfires to many western states, including Arizona. While Arizona had a fairly quiet 2015 fire season (1540 wildfires, which burned just over 158,000 acres), California’s drought contributed to an active wildfire season, with more than 838,000 acres burned. 

California’s large destructive fires stretched the state’s resources thin. When that happens, a state can request assistance from its neighbors through a state-to-state mutual aid program called the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC).

EMAC makes it easier for states to share personnel, equipment and other resources during a state of emergency. Both California Office of Emergency Services (CAL OES) and the Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs (DEMA) are members of EMAC.

EMAC requests sent to DEMA are handled by Butch Wise, DEMA’s Logistics/Mutual Aid Coordinator.

“Once the request for assistance is received from the requesting state, I confer with the Response Branch Manager and the Assistant Director for Operations and Response, who then contacts DEMA’s Deputy Director for approval.  If approved, then we see if we have the qualified personnel available to support the mission,” Wise explained. “If the personnel are available, I complete the Assisting States Offer for Assistance which includes all aspects of funding travel, per diem, salary, equipment, commodities and other costs associated with supporting the mission and send it back to the requesting state.”

The request from CAL OES was for personnel to fill the roles of Voluntary Agency Liaison (VAL) and Individual Assistance specialists.

VAL’s are integral to successful disaster recovery. They foster relationships with volunteer groups, non-governmental organizations, governmental agencies and other groups that provide resources to a community during and after a disaster.

Individual Assistance specialists help people recover from disaster by coordinating the programs available to them. They work with affected communities to ensure the residents’ immediate needs are met, direct them on how to get assistance and coordinate relief programs.

California’s request was referred to the Human Services Branch, the unit within DEMA responsible for providing recovery assistance following a disaster that impacts individuals, households and businesses.

Dan Porth, Human Services Branch Manager, reviewed the request for a 30-day deployment and sent it to his disaster reservists, individuals who are trained to go into communities to help with a variety of recovery needs.

“I knew they wanted seasoned people who could take charge in the field, be flexible and handle a stressful environment working with county, state and federal partners,” Porth said.

“Dan Porth called and asked if I would be interested in an EMAC assignment in California. They were looking for Individual Assistance [specialists] because of two large fires; one in Lake County which destroyed more than 1200 homes, and one in Calaveras County which destroyed over 500 homes,” reservist Joan Brown said. “I am married and retired from the medical field. This makes it very easy for me to give the time that is needed for different deployments.”

Prior to deployment, Wise briefs the personnel on all aspects of the deployment to include, dates, travel, mission, contact people, the do's and don’ts while supporting the mission, etc.

DEMA’s reservists reported to the duty station in Sacramento and were then assigned to different locations. Reservist Eric Ehmann served his first deployment and then some, putting him in California for three months.

“I am working in Calaveras County for the State of California. I am currently the Volunteer Agency Liaison. I am working with the Long Term Recovery Team to help prepare and plan for assisting fire survivors with unmet needs,” Ehmann explained. “I also spent time as the Individual Assistance subject matter expert, communicating information from the field to the Joint Field Office. I spent my time learning about programs and resources and guiding people to those resources.”

Brown was tasked with two jobs during her deployment–donations management and VAL.

“Donation management can become a disaster in itself if not properly managed. Tons--and I mean tons--of in-kind articles such as clothing, furniture and stuff is being sent by the truckload. It all needs to be organized, distributed and sometimes even eliminated,” said Brown.

During deployment, weekly teleconferences are held to check on the team’s progress and to help with any issues that may arise.

“During their deployment, I request weekly situational reports so we can see the activities they are supporting. I also like to check their general wellbeing,” Porth said. “I receive a final situational report upon their return from deployment, and we as a group, conduct an after action review.”

The after action review allows Porth and his team to identify any best practices and lessons learned from the deployment that they can use in DEMA’s disaster response planning.

Ehmann and Brown approach each deployment as an opportunity to help others and to learn from their experiences.

“It is a huge learning experience. I get to observe and learn what other states and individuals do during disaster. I can bring valuable information back to my organization,” Ehmann said. “Most importantly to me is that I get to help people who are stressed and confused. If I can give a little hope and a little help to the survivors here, I feel like it is time well spent.” 

“If I can make someone's life who has suffered from a disaster better for even one minute I will work my hardest, said Brown. “I like to tell them ‘You just have to get through the next minute, then that minute will turn into an hour, then a day, then a week, then a year’. But right now, we are working on this minute.”

CAL OES requested more people than DEMA could provide to assist at the time. But DEMA will always try to fulfill a request for assistance.

“As a signatory to EMAC, each state should do it’s best to support a request from another state,” said Porth. “It is a great opportunity for our staff to work in a federally-declared Individual Assistance event, which gives us more practical experiences. The experience Joan and Eric have add quality and depth to our staff no amount of exercise can teach.”

DEMA has received five requests for personnel in 2015 and was able to assist with four of them.