Summit County to hire an emergency manager after staffers say ‘emergency resources are tapped out’
Summit County Search and Rescue had a great success early this month thanks to the ingenuity of a 9-year-old boy who, after becoming separated from his family in the backcountry, conserved his energy overnight and stumbled upon his father the next morning 2 miles from their camp, lifting the spirits of the scores of people who had mobilized to help find him.
The family was reunited around 9:30 a.m., but for Summit County Sheriff’s Lt. Alan Siddoway, who oversees the Search and Rescue unit and had been on scene since roughly midnight, that was only the midpoint of a marathon day.
In addition to overseeing Search and Rescue, Siddoway has been operating as the county’s interim emergency manager, an arrangement county staff and Sheriff Justin Martinez told the County Council last week had become untenable.
“This was a fairly standard search and rescue,” Martinez said. “For (the Carl Crumrine search last fall), we were up there over a week. We wouldn’t have the capacity to even support (the emergency manager position.)”
Despite a hiring freeze implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the County Council voted unanimously to hire a part-time emergency manager to bolster the county’s emergency planning capabilities at a time when resources have been stretched thin.
In recent years, the county had combined two emergency management positions into one, with one position focused on public health and operating within the Health Department and one focused on emergency management like evacuation routes employed by the Sheriff’s Office.
That arrangement imperiled a $174,000 state grant for public health emergency planning, officials were told. In February, the county put Chris Crowley, who had been covering both roles, into the public health emergency planning position on a full-time basis, asking Siddoway to cover the other functions.
County Manager Tom Fisher said “it became abundantly clear this year” amid the COVID-19 pandemic that both positions warranted a full-time employee. He said that the county is not exposed to unacceptable levels of risk with the current arrangement, but that employing a dedicated emergency manager would nonetheless lower the risks.
He indicated that the county would not necessarily struggle to handle an acute emergency, but that the deficit in capability is preventing the county from planning effectively and preparing for emergencies to come.
“We’d flex to it,” he said, referring to how the county would handle an emergency like a large-scale wildfire.
A staff report accompanying the hiring request indicated the status quo left gaps in the county’s emergency response infrastructure.
“Currently, our emergency resources are tapped out, putting the County at risk should another large emergency occur this summer,” the report states. “… During the COVID-19 emergency, Summit County has had talented, dedicated employees figure out as we went how to respond to this emergency but there were times, especially at the beginning of the emergency, where the County could have been more effective, efficient, and timely had we had the resources needed to complete better planning, training, and overall preparations prior to this emergency.”
Fisher, who has extensive experience preparing for and handling emergencies as a brigadier general in the National Guard and from his time in county governments, has described the role of emergency manager as preparing and planning for worst-case scenarios like earthquakes, fires and floods.
“Their role in emergency is not running the emergency. Their role is to be an expert in how things can run and where resources can be put,” he said in an interview. “… Their job is to prepare the entity for the next emergency.”
Both Siddoway and Crowley have been working more than full-time in responding to the pandemic, according to the staff report, leaving other responsibilities uncovered.
Those include coordinating with neighboring jurisdictions and updating emergency plans like how the government would provide basic services if phone lines and cellular and internet infrastructure were to suddenly stop functioning, Fisher said.
The county has had both full- and part-time emergency managers over the years, human resources director Brian Bellamy said, but it still lacks some emergency plans like how to evacuate its citizens from certain neighborhoods, a status county councilors have indicated is not acceptable.
“Not having adequate evacuation plans countywide and not having somebody looking at them on a constant basis seeing where problems are occurring each season, we’re leaving ourselves in a very dangerous position,” Councilor Glenn Wright said at a meeting last week.
Councilor Roger Armstrong, who has resisted adding full-time positions, questioned whether a full-time emergency manager would be necessary once the county is caught up on its emergency planning, suggesting the size and location of neighborhoods in the Snyderville Basin are not changing enough to warrant rewriting emergency plans on a consistent basis.
“It seems like the last time you want to be making a decision about what you need is in the middle of the worst thing that’s happened to the county in its history,” he said.
The compromise suggested by county staff and accepted by the council is to hire someone on a part-time basis to avoid having to pay benefits to keep the expense minimal and to hire them on a temporary contract to give the county flexibility to dismiss the position if necessary.
Staffers indicated they would like to see the position become full-time and that the discussion would occur during the county’s budget talks, which are beginning now and last until a budget is adopted in December.
Snyderville Basin residents and those living on the East Side could see an increase in their property taxes next year, but it won’t be the result of higher property values.
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