City focus turns to emergency preparedness

The federal government’s response to recent hurricanes in the Gulf Coast region of the United States has forced city leaders to change their emergency preparedness strategy and request and reallocate additional resources within Tacoma’s police and fire departments, according to a discussion during the Nov. 1 Tacoma City Council study session.

“There is a lot of work for the city to do in regards to being best prepared,” said Ralph Johns, Tacoma’s Deputy Chief of Fire Prevention, who told councilmembers that Hurricane Katrina “gave us a whole new paradigm to look at.”

That new paradigm stems from criticism of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) response to the disaster, citizens’ expectations of the government’s ability to assist, and a lack of citizen-preparedness. According to Johns, emergency preparedness leaders within the Tacoma Fire Department (TFD), Tacoma Police Department (TPD), and the city’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) would like to see more coordination between the city and the Port of Tacoma, Pierce County, the Health Department, and state, federal, and regional governments. In addition, Johns told councilmembers that strategy changes are needed in the city’s emergency and communications plans.

“We need to take on significant changes in the emergency management arena,” he said, and recommended that the city reallocate the resources of 1.5 full-time TFD employees, and 1 full-time TPD employee in order to complete a four-person team that would address the changes needed in emergency preparedness.

“This four-person team would be a catalyst for coming up with a strategy to address this paradigm shift,” said Johns.

Moreover, TFD wants to create a task force of representatives from all major emergency services departments in the city and county to address the issue.

Councilmembers were reticent regarding support for requesting and reallocating resources, largely because of the budget problems currently facing the city.

Last year, the city discovered a $29.6 million deficit while balancing its biennium budget. The council approved a two-year, $356 million general fund budget Dec. 14, but with provisions that only provided funding for one year toward services such as the Proctor District fire station and community liaison police officers. In addition, the city’s expenses have climbed over the past several years, the result of higher costs for wages and benefits, and a law limiting property taxes citywide.

On Aug. 9, City Manager Eric Anderson recommended permanent adjustments of $10 million to balance the budget through 2006, and the elimination of a $14.5 million projected deficit for the 2007/2008 biennium through the Breakthrough Change Initiative introduced by former city manager Jim Walton, who retired June 30. That plan is designed to reduce expenses by making structural changes in the way the city is organized and operated, in areas that include employee compensation and benefits, organizational restructuring, risk management, and vehicles and equipment.

Additionally, Anderson recommended the elimination of property and B&O taxes, reduction of the utility tax, and introduction of monthly user fees for police, fire, and library services. Fees for these services would be based upon either building occupancy or property value, applicable to all property owners — including hospitals, non-profit organizations, schools, ports, and governments (but not houses of worship), and charged monthly in an itemized invoice.

The city’s EOC is managed by the fire department and closely coordinated with TPD.

Tuesday’s study session was the second time in two weeks that the city’s attention has turned toward emergency preparedness. At the Oct. 18 study session, the fire department made a presentation to the council on what citizens can do to prepare for a natural disaster.