Florida Emergency Responders Urged to Think Local

May 15, 2009

Craig Fugate’s promotion to head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency was celebrated this week by the first responders, community organizations and emergency management officials he formerly led in Florida.

“Now that Craig is FEMA director, maybe he’ll be there parting the waters for those who choose to stay” in defiance of evacuation orders, joked Bill Read, the director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

However, the overall message at the annual Governor’s Hurricane Conference in Fort Lauderdale was to take responsibility for disaster response at the local level. That is, don’t wait for Craig.

The Senate on Tuesday confirmed Fugate, the former head of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, as President Barack Obama’s pick to lead FEMA.

In Florida, Fugate had advocated for residents to make plans to survive the first few days after a storm with no outside help.

Emergency management officials also need to take responsibility for how their agencies respond when the next storm hits, said Ruben Almaguer, who was appointed Tuesday as the state’s interim emergency management chief.

“Sheriffs, are your officers trained? If you’re not training your staff and exercising your officers, you’re vulnerable to failure,” he said.

Florida’s strategic plan for storm recovery won’t change with Fugate’s departure, said Almaguer, who was the agency’s deputy director for more than two years under Fugate. The Cuban-born Almaguer previously served as a division chief and paramedic for Miami-Dade Fire Rescue.

“That’s responding, not waiting for FEMA,” he said. “Responding quickly and taking care of people.”

Almaguer also encouraged county officials to be more involved in the legislative process that determines state funding for emergency response training and preparation.

The conference’s training workshops began Sunday and continue through Friday. Among the special topics this year: the potential of social media tools such as Twitter to inform the public about storm forecasts and dangers.

FEMA is posting disaster information on the video-sharing Web site YouTube, along with stockpiling food and tarps to pre-Hurricane Gustav levels, said the agency’s regional administrator, Phil May.

Gov. Charlie Crist was scheduled to address the conference Thursday.

Hurricane season begins June 1 and runs through November.

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