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A Times Editorial

Threats test readiness for other emergencies

© St. Petersburg Times,
published October 17, 2001

Who would have thought that the ongoing threats of terrorism would be a blessing in disguise for the Hernando County Commission?

Last week a suspicious package that was received at the county government center in downtown Brooksville forced employees to evacuate the building. The padded envelope and its powder, as well as a similar package found at the Sheriff's Office on the west side of town, were tested for anthrax and other harmful bacteria, and the results were negative.

But, along with that positive outcome came the unsettling news that the unexpected evacuations of these public facilities revealed that the county's reaction to the emergency was woefully inadequate.

So unorganized and ineffective was the response that County Administrator Paul McIntosh was compelled to immediately review the county's emergency management plans for safeguarding government employees and facilities.

McIntosh's recommendations to the commissioners, who gave him a green light to proceed at their meeting Tuesday, are comprehensive. They also are potentially expensive, but the commission should not allow cost to stand in the way of making these clearly needed improvements.

In his evaluation of last week's threat of terrorism, McIntosh had critical words for almost every aspect of the response.

He said the various agencies involved, including the Emergency Management Team, the Sheriff's Office, and the Brooksville Fire and Police departments, "lacked coordination." "written protocols" and "proper equipment" to handle such an event. He also emphasized that his staff and managers needed more and better training to assess the risk, and react appropriately, posed by all types of emergencies.

Something as indispensable as an evacuation plan from the government center "either does not exist or has not been communicated to county employees," McIntosh wrote in his recommendations to the commission. Such a fundamental deficiency is remarkable. Even schoolchildren know where to assemble if they are forced to leave the building, and teachers know they must account for their charges to see whether anyone is missing or left behind. What's more, they practice using their escape route so it becomes second nature if a real emergency arises.

Other criticisms by McIntosh centered on communication gaps between emergency response agencies, as well as between department managers and their employees. He also cited a dearth of employees who are trained in hazardous materials management. All those concerns can and should be dealt with quickly.

In addition, McIntosh is seizing the opportunity to tighten security by regulating access and movement in government buildings. Issuing identification badges to employees and restricting access to certain parts of the government center are two ideas that have been discussed informally for years, and the time is right to act on those measures.

Plans should be developed for all county facilities, not just the government complex and courthouse in Brooksville. The School Board also should review its evacuation plans for nonschool facilities and evaluate whether security can be improved to protect the buildings and employees who work there. The same goes for Brooksville and the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

These are trying times for everyone, and each would-be crisis presents an opportunity for all of us, especially public servants, to be better prepared for the unexpected. The commissioners should not pass up this chance to move forward, and be thankful they learned of the problems before a more serious calamity emerged.

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