Emergency preparedness: It's a full-time job

"The number-one thing we try to do is to build resiliency in the community against disasters," said Joseph Villegas, director of the Wayne County Emergency Management Agency.

The agency is tucked away in downtown Wooster in the basement of the Justice Center. There they have the capacity to set up and maintain a master communication center to coordinate emergency response in the event of a large-scale disaster.

"When people think of emergency management, they think we only get activated when there is a disaster," Villegas said.

His department operates year round, making sure everything and everyone is as ready as possible to handle whatever natural or human events might bring the city to a standstill.

Building resiliency means "education and preparation and some mitigation work," Villegas. said.

Education includes creating awareness in the community at large in terms of how best to prepare individually as well as keeping current on training for first responders.

Hazard mitigation involves identifying potentially solvable problems ahead of time and avoiding an emergency situation.

"We have representatives from each village and city around the county to try and identify any problematic areas," Villegas said.

He explained one example would be areas that repeatedly flood.

The Wayne County Hazard Mitigation Plan defines hazard mitigation as "any sustained action taken to reduce or eliminate long-term risk to people and property from natural hazards such as flooding, storms, high winds, earthquakes, etc. Mitigation efforts undertaken by communities will help to minimize damages to buildings and infrastructure such as water supplies, sewers and utility transmission lines as well as natural, cultural and historic resources."

The agency is currently finalizing a mitigation plan for Wayne County. That plan is posted on the WCEMA website at www.wcemaoh.org and may be found by clicking on the link on the left side of the home page or by using this link: www.wcemaoh.org/hazard-mitigation-plan.

Individuals are invited to read through the plan and offer comments prior to Feb. 1.

The second thing the agency focuses on is recovery in the event of disaster. "A lot of preparation goes into that," Villegas said. "It involves being able to establish relationships with other agencies, resources, volunteer groups and grant programs, any type of program that could help and bring funding to assist us in recovery."

WCEMA works with a wide variety of local, regional and national agencies to maintain a list of resources. "We work with different agencies to maintain the list," Villegas said. "So we know how to engage any of those resources when needed."

Day to day the agency receives a constant stream of information from a wide variety of agencies regarding potential situations or hazards. "It's about situational awareness and passing along the information to the right people," Villegas said.

This information includes everything from National Weather Service notifications to notifications that hazardous material may be traveling through the county via truck or rail.

"Of course we also get information from homeland security," Villegas said.

Villegas and his team also may sometimes be called to other areas to assist with local or national efforts after a disaster.

WCEMA's staff was enlisted during the Republican National Convention to help staff the Cuyahoga County emergency operations center.

Villegas and another director traveled to Florida in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. "During that time they needed to sustain 24/7 operations," Villegas said. "They also had a variety of different volunteer groups, and there was a need for people to help manage that."

Villegas was instrumental in helping obtain grant monies to assist in providing for unmet needs in the area for the coming year.

Situational awareness is another facet of the WCEMA's work. "We use Facebook often and share a lot of information and tips," Villegas said. "Lately we've been sharing a lot of weather advisories."

In the midst of winter Villegas said, "We always remind people to pay attention to the snow emergency messages being sent out from the sheriff's office. Let the snow plows go through. More than anything else, if there is bad weather, stay home and keep warm."

Individuals are encouraged to sign up online to receive information directly via text or email regarding Wayne County emergency alerts and public service announcements at www.911alert.me. The service offers many options regarding the alerts received. All users will automatically be registered for 24/7 tornado warning alerts.

Find the Wayne County Emergency Management Agency on Facebook at www.facebook.com/wcemaoh/.

By Ellen Pill