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Emergency readiness in one year | Could you manage on your own for a week or more?

One year from today, the Island’s new Emergency Preparedness Officer wants residents and the city to be ready for the “Big One,” the natural disaster or storm that would take out both bridges.

It’s a lofty goal that city officials said they support, despite losing their part-time coordinator early this year and handing over the duties to former DARE Officer Jennifer Franklin less than two months ago. Franklin, the new emergency preparedness officer, shared her three-pronged approach to getting the Island prepared for a natural disaster during her first update to the City Council last Monday. She said she hopes to have a holistic approach with updated disaster response plans, procedures and, finally, city staff and volunteer training completed within one year.

“Right now we could do it,” Franklin said of the Island’s ability to withstand a major disaster. “But it would be rough. It’s my goal to have everything in place so we know we can handle both bridges going down because we are prepared for it.”

The hardest part of accomplishing this feat, said Franklin’s supervisor and police Cmdr. Leslie Burns, will be getting 22,000 Island residents and hundreds of businesses ready to take care of themselves for seven to 10 days after a catastrophic event. There are only 10 public safety employees on duty after business hours and more than 95 percent of all city employees do not live on the Island. During business hours, there are also thousands of employees who commute from other communities to work on the Island and could get stuck if both bridges are damaged.

“The community center can’t house 22,000 people,” Franklin said of the city’s emergency shelter capabilities and the number of residents on the Island. “People have got to be prepared to take care of themselves.”

City officials have revamped their efforts to prepare Islanders for a catastrophic natural disaster since power was out for up to 10 days for some residents while freezing temperatures followed a severe windstorm in December 2006. According to Franklin, it is also time to update the city’s response plan as required by the state and federal governments every four years.

Franklin, city officials and several other citizen volunteers are cheery over the headway made so far, but also cautious of the long road ahead.

Islander Jason King, the current Chamber of Commerce president and emergency preparedness advocate with the Mercer Island Business Networking Alliance, or (MIBNA) said city officials have done well with putting the community’s readiness as a high priority.

“We would be nothing as far as the community approach regarding our goals and objectives to make us ready for the eventuality of a major event without the city administration and Council putting this as a high priority,” King said.

However, the amount of work to be done to educate business owners, employees and customers about preparing for a disaster is as troubling as getting homeowners to do so. King said the MIBNA approach is to promote awareness among businesses, but it remains a voluntary program.

“It is a natural tendency for residents and businesses to put off coping with a ‘what if?’ scenario. But it’s part of our job to demonstrate the benefits and necessary tools to do an adequate amount of preparation,” King said.

According to Burns, community preparedness cannot be mandated or enforced, which adds to the challenge of getting residents ready.

“Getting Islanders ready for seven to 10 days is not going to happen in one year,” Burns said. “It may be 10, and that goal will probably show up year after year. ”

The city is also looking into what the backup shelter would be if the community center, the main shelter, is damaged during an event. As temperatures dropped below freezing and the Island had no power after the 2006 windstorm, the city experienced difficulties with heating the community center gym and established a shelter at West Mercer Elementary school instead.

“We are also working with the faith community for cooling and warming centers as well as aid distribution sites,” Franklin said of the willingness of the Island’s religious institutions to participate.

In the short period of time since Franklin began her new duties, she has worked out a deal to use the high school radio station for emergency broadcasts following a disaster and coordinated with the local amateur radio club to build a new communication hub at the community center.

The city is also currently designing an emergency well at Rotary Park to distribute water if the floating bridge is ever damaged in an earthquake or windstorm. The Island gets its water supply from Seattle through pipes that run along the floating bridge.

In addition to updating the emergency Web page on the city’s Web site and providing a downloadable check list and instructions booklet to help Islanders prepare, she is also working with the communications coordinator to disperse an informative survey.

“We want to know who needs our help and who we can help,” Franklin said.

The survey will be coming out in the “Mercer Island Quarterly” later this month. The information provided will help emergency personnel to determine who might be in need of an immediate check up and the nearest resident or city employee best suited to accomplish that after a disaster. While participation in the survey and using the materials available from the city will help Islanders, Franklin said she still needs to establish an effective communication model that will help when phone lines are down and power is out.

“We want to make it possible for city staff and volunteers to not be afraid to handle a situation,” Burns said of updating the emergency policies. “So they feel comfortable and have confidence to do the tasks needed.”

The updated Emergency Preparedness Booklet is available online at www.mercergov.org/emergencyprep.

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