The high winds and rising floodwaters of recent storms underscore a fundamental need: Pennsylvanians must be prepared for anything.
Because disaster can strike at any time and place, emergency planning and practicing are as essential as food, water and shelter. Last year was one of the most disaster-filled in recent history, spawning more than 1,000 weather-related fatalities and more than 8,000 injuries across the country. These tragedies should compel us to get ready for the worst now.
Coupled with the fact that Pennsylvania is the second most flood-prone state in the nation, we should know that prolonged power outages, boil-water advisories, closed roads, and evacuation orders are always a grim possibility. Despite Doppler radar and other technological advances in forecasting and flood mapping, a small emergency can still escalate into a major disaster.
It is not only Mother Nature’s assaults, but man-made attacks, that can leave Americans in need of help, as 9-11 and the nation’s recent mass shootings demonstrate in heart-wrenching detail.
The need to plan for any hazard—be it the next flood, fire, snowstorm, toxic spill, earthquake, criminal act, or terrorist attack—is the message behind Emergency Preparedness Month, commemorated every September.
September also is the time we mark First Responders Appreciation Day (Sept. 27), Gold Star Mothers Day (Sept. 30), POW-MIA Recognition Day (Sept. 21), the anniversary of 9-11, and, this year, the first anniversary of Tropical Storm Lee.
This convergence of crises and commemorations highlights the ongoing efforts of individuals, communities, the Commonwealth and this country to plan for, prevent, minimize, respond to, and recover from tragedy. When a natural or manmade disaster launches an unexpected punch, a trained, coordinated network must be at the ready at all levels, from families, townships and counties, all the way up to the federal Office of Homeland Security.
As the Chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee, I am honored to be able to work with members of our military, firefighters, police officers and EMS workers who have the love of country, community, freedom and family to fight a house fire in the dead of night or leave behind their family to stare down danger in a faraway land. Whether responding to a cardiac arrest call, embarking on a high-speed chase or rescuing lost campers, our emergency responders know that work is never 9 to 5. They have a higher calling that transcends salary or ceremony.
History has shown that in a large-scale emergency such as Hurricane Katrina or Irene, first responders may not be able to reach everyone immediately. Therefore, government officials urge all citizens to prepare to survive on their own for at least three days.
The Commonwealth outlines many ways to prepare on its www.ReadyPA.org website. Suggestions include stocking an emergency kit complete with batteries, bottled water and extra medication; teaching children when to dial 911; and formulating and practicing a family evacuation and communication plan.
Local governments and the state play a front-line role in emergency preparedness, response and recovery. Our Senate committee is now working to revise the complicated system of laws that govern our emergency response structure. Known as Title 35, the law has not been updated since 1996, long before 9-11 and Hurricane Katrina taught us valuable lessons about cell phone coverage, rooftop rescues and evacuation centers.
Next month, the Senate will hold a hearing on ways to fund 911 call centers in the future. In many counties, the $1 or $1.50 monthly charge on a homeowner’s landline or cell phone is woefully inadequate to fund the latest technology, which will allow victims to send text messages, videos and photographs to 911 call centers.
Counties need the resources to bring our 911 call centers into the Internet age. We must also consolidate call centers and share resources. With the technology available to do so, now is the time to incentivize cooperation.
It is easy to take for granted that a 911 call will be answered within seconds by trained call takers, and that police, fire, and ambulance crews will arrive at the scene of a crime or accident within minutes. We must make sure every link in the chain works quickly and capably—every time—to immediately provide help to the hurting. Every citizen can aid this system even more by supporting our local heroes at home and abroad and by preparing for emergencies in our communities.
Take the time now to prepare your family’s emergency kit. It is also a good time to support your local police officers, firefighters, ambulance workers, 911 call-takers and veterans past, present and future in some meaningful way. As true local heroes, they know all too well that each call can lead them into harm’s way, but they serve still, with unselfish courage and patriotism.
While we wish that bad things never happened to good people, recent tragedies compel us to be prepared. It is in times of greatest trouble that Americans have always displayed the heart-warming spirit, resilience and unity that have made America the greatest nation on earth, and always will.
Contact: Jennifer Wilson