Emergency management plan calls for more funding, streamlining “bulky” system

With the legislative session less than a year away, emergency management officials are looking at ways to strengthen Nevada’s crisis recovery efforts after a year in which the state responded to several — including the largest mass shooting in modern U.S. history and major flooding in the Truckee River.

The proposals, developed for the Nevada Commission on Homeland Security, seek to increase funding for the Division of Emergency Management, which receives about 90 percent of its budget from grants. One proposal calls for a budget increase of as much as $6.7 million, a move that would allow the division to send more funding to local and tribal governments.

Other proposals look to streamline crisis response, create new reporting requirements for casino and school plans and form a disaster response team through Nevada Volunteers/AmeriCorps.

“We are doing very well when we take look at how we measure up to other communities in the United States,” said Clark County Fire Department Deputy Chief John Steinbeck, a co-chair of the task force that prepared the proposals. “Can we be satisfied? No. We shouldn’t be satisfied. We still have a process in place for recovery that can be very bureaucratic, very bulky.”

The state continues to have problems with efficient information sharing, Steinbeck said. There have also been problems getting situational awareness reports to all of the stakeholders who need them, he said. Some of the issues that the proposals hope to address are less pressing. In the long-term, the state is going to have to invest more in training, he argued. Steinbeck said several emergency management officials are nearing the ends of their careers, which, could leave a knowledge gap.

A key component to fixing these issues is funding. The Division of Emergency Management funds a majority of its budget with grants. As a result, it’s unable to apportion as much funding as it would like for local governments, whose law enforcement are typically the first on scene.

“[The funding issue] keeps grants from trickling down to the locals and being utilized for some of the trainings and exercises that can help make this work better,” Steinbeck said.

According to an analysis from the National Emergency Management Association, Nevada had a state budget of more than $1 million in fiscal year 2016. Though it was on the low side, several similarly populated states had budgets of under $2 million (link to PDF of the analysis).

In a report that Steinbeck and Division of Emergency Management Chief Caleb Cage presented to the Nevada Commission on Homeland Security, they noted that Nevada is changing. Clark County is regularly ranked as one of the fastest-growing regions in the country. Accordingly, they argue that the state’s emergency management protocols need to evolve.

“If 2017 is any indication, Nevada faces new and more intense threats and hazards than previously,” Cage and Steinbeck write in the report. “In order to provide safe and livable communities in the New Nevada, we must consider taking bold new measures to ensure the way we provide for emergency management and homeland security evolves as well.”

Some items in the proposed emergency management plan would require legislative approval during the next session. Others can be achieved through directives and executive orders.

On March 12, Gov. Brian Sandoval signed an executive order that instructed Cage and Steinbeck to develop new training programs and regulations for information-sharing.

“Nevada experienced unprecedented emergencies and disasters during calendar year 2017,” Sandoval wrote in the executive order. “These incidents resulted in disruption and tragedy throughout Nevada, however, they also displayed Nevada’s commitment to recovery and to building a stronger Nevada based on lessons learned from these incidents.”

The order also instructs Cage and Steinbeck, as co-chairs of the Nevada Homeland Security Working Group, to finish developing legislative recommendations by June 30.

In general, Cage said he hopes that the Legislature will take a look at emergency management statutes and update them. Many current rules were written in response to the 9/11 attacks. He also said that the Legislature should revisit issues around emergency plans that public-facing organizations, such as casinos, utilities and schools, are required to submit to the division.

“On the legislative side, I think that there is value in looking at things like the emergency plans that we are a repository [for],” Cage said. “What do we do with them? How do we ensure that the organizations submitting the plans are compliant? Currently we don’t have any [enforcement] mechanism to go out and do that. We just have to ask nicely, I guess, to get some of those in.”

After the Oct. 1 shooting, reporting in the Las Vegas Review-Journal revealed that about half of the state’s 155 casinos did not file or update emergency management plans in 2008. All of the casinos are now in compliance, Cage said, after the division wrote them letters asking them to update their plans. Cage said some power to enforce this requirement could help the division.

One suggestion, which is included in the preliminary proposals, is that the division report emergency management compliance to regulators who oversee casinos, schools and utilities.

The planning process comes at a time when the national debate is centered around how best to secure communal spaces, especially threats like gun violence. Hundreds — some estimate thousands — of protesters marched in Las Vegas and Reno last weekend after a fatal shooting at a high school in Florida last month left 17 dead. Earlier this week, Sandoval announced a separate task force to focus on school safety. It will have its first meeting in early May.

Cage said he has received support from the governor and other law enforcement officials to expand his division’s budget by about $6.7 million. It would allow the division to hire a deputy chief and more staff for recovery. But Cage said the most significant part of the budget request is that it would free up more federal grant funding for local law enforcement agencies.

“To me, that’s huge,” he said. “Emergency management is always local first.”

Story provided courtesy of The Nevada Independent www.nevadaindependent.com.