Amid requested staffing change, Summit County Council told emergency preparedness is deficient
A seemingly innocuous agenda item at Wednesday’s County Council meeting turned out to be anything but when a discussion about a change in an employee position chart led to county councilors hearing that staff is deficient in emergency preparedness and that a plan to remain in compliance with state regulations might leave the county without a full-time emergency manager while a new one is hired.
The county combined its emergency manager position with the public health emergency planning position in 2017, Health Director Rich Bullough told the council. The job has been filled by the county’s emergency manager, Chris Crowley.
Bullough said the responsibilities are too much for one person and that the arrangement imperils a $174,000 federal grant that pays for public health emergency planning.
The emergency manager works to ensure the county is prepared for catastrophes like wildfires or floods, County Manager Tom Fisher said in an interview.
“The emergency manager function — you’re largely preparing for things you hope never happen,” Fisher said. “It’s about testing the infrastructure that you plan for to see whether it’s ready to handle the beginnings of a disaster.”
Bullough is requesting the public health planning position be moved back into the Health Department full time to remain in compliance with the grant requirements, which would leave the emergency manager position unstaffed.
“It has been made clear to us that increasing our (public health emergency planning) capacity is a condition of continued funding,” Bullough and others wrote in a staff report accompanying the request. “Each time our program is audited, the County is called out for not having a full-time (public health emergency planning) (employee).”
The council did not decide whether to split the position back into two and create a full-time public health emergency planning position inside the Health Department. That plan would also entail hiring a separate, full-time emergency manager, a process that Bullough and Fisher, who also spoke about the request, indicated might take months.
“We’re willing to take some risk for a period of time to fulfill the request that Rich (Bullough) is making because we feel it’s necessary to get in better compliance with the grant money that the Health Department is receiving for emergency planning,” Fisher said. “Now, I don’t think we want to spend six months to a year to do that because I don’t think we want to have that function uncovered that long.”
Fisher has experience in the area. He is a Utah National Guard brigadier general and was the administrator of Mesa County, Colorado, when it was hit by a massive landslide in 2014 that killed three people. In the immediate aftermath of the landslide, Fisher declared a local emergency to help coordinate state and federal aid.
He said the county’s staffing situation, while not ideal, gives the county an opportunity to bolster the work being done in both positions.
Fisher said the county’s emergency plans are in complete compliance, but putting them into practice is a skill that has not been adequately tested.
“One of our biggest deficiencies that still remains in kind of what I consider our basic county services is our emergency management. We still have trouble fully preparing our community for emergencies,” Fisher told the council. “When we start talking about the most likely wildfire and flood and really what would be an evacuation function, we don’t have robust evacuation planning completed. We have the ability to stand up an emergency operations center, but we haven’t exercised that in several years and we don’t — we haven’t practiced that as staff. And I would still estimate our staff preparedness to be deficient in emergency management.”
The discussion came a few meetings after the county adopted its budget in mid-December that included adding the equivalent of five new full-time positions, the kind of growth then-Chair Roger Armstrong cautioned against.
On Wednesday, Armstrong said it felt “dishonest” that the request for another full-time employee was made after the regular budgeting process, and he has said he is wary of unchecked bureaucratic growth and the prospect of having to fire people if the economy weakens. He has also instructed staff to consider contracting with consultants in some cases rather than hire a full-time employee that would then be with the county, essentially, in perpetuity.
“The assessor’s office asked for bodies — we turned that down,” Armstrong said. “If we need something less than we need an emergency manager, then I would like to see that analysis done so that we’re not just continuing to increase FTEs. … There are bodies that I’m not sure are as crucial as an emergency manager if that’s the case.”
The council requested more information about the risks of leaving the position uncovered; when the public health emergency planning grant would be reviewed next, which would inform a timeline for making the switch; and options for funding the new position, including positions the county might hold open.
Fisher indicated his goal is to have a seamless transition and to leave the emergency manager position unfilled for as little time as possible.
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Summit County’s emergency manager started six months into the pandemic but hit the ground running, earning praise for her professionalism from the health director and county manager.