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Disaster experts come to learn in Florida

Published June 20, 2006

TALLAHASSEE - Emergency responders from 12 states came to Florida on Monday to learn how experts here handle disasters.

From states as near as Georgia and as far away as Washington, participants echoed the same sentiment: Florida does disaster response right, and they want to know the secret.

"Teamwork," said Dave Bujak, who organized the two-day seminar for the Florida Division of Emergency Management. "Clearly, teamwork."

Bujak's agency's concept, called State Emergency Response Team, has served workers through 60 events and earned Florida a national emergency response accreditation that only nine states enjoy.

The system dates back to Hurricane Andrew in 1992, when workers realized they had to fix their fragmented response system, said State Emergency Response Team chief Dave Halstead.

They built what is best described as a tree: The Emergency Management Division is the trunk, and disconnected state agencies that once duplicated efforts and competed for resources during disasters are the branches.

For example, instead of scrounging for fuel, emergency responders from health, law enforcement and fire divisions were able to access a single, statewide fuel center route during Hurricane Katrina.

One commander now directs a unified search-and-rescue team during floods, instead of sending out multiple teams from the state, sheriff's offices and fire halls, as was done in pre-emergency response team days.

"We're all together with one plan, one response," Halstead said. That matters to disaster victims when responders are able to reach them quicker and safer.

"SERT is state government at its best, where egos are left at the door and everyone works toward one mission," Halstead said. The program worked so well during Katrina that his agency was able to launch rescues in neighboring Mississippi two hours after the storm. Within 48 hours, it had set up camp with food, water and supplies for six counties.

Participants at Monday's seminar said they were sold on the concept.

Louisiana responders will use some of Florida's predisaster planning tips, said Lt. Col. Bill Doran of the state's Homeland Security Office.

Officials from Colorado - where bad weather can bring tornadoes, fires, flooding and snow storms - said they would use some of Florida's search-and-rescue tactics when searching for lost hikers and hunters.

Leaders from Washington, where experts are anxiously watching to see if Mount St. Helens will erupt, said they planned to take Florida's one-team attitude home with them.

Emergency responders from Rhode Island to Utah spoke about the different worst-case scenarios that keep them up at night. The potential nightmares were varied, but featured one common theme: Mother Nature is moody and powerful - so be ready, and stick together.

States participating in the seminar were Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Utah and Washington.

[Last modified June 19, 2006, 22:08:08]

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