032520 Doug Dodge

Doug Dodge, Jefferson County's director of emergency services, at a meeting March 19.

Once each month, the Jefferson County Local Emergency Planning Committee comes together, rotating between locations in Whitehall, Boulder, and Montana City. The agenda is nearly the same at every meeting – parsing the details of one section or another of the county’s Emergency Operations Plan.

That document, required by law, is comprised of over 400 pages. It lays out four phases of activity – mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery – and lays out a framework for each phase. It provides an organizational structure and describes roles and responsibilities for incident command. And it articulates the core priorities in any response: people's health and safety; protection of critical civic facilities like fire stations and radio towers; and preservation of infrastructure such as roads and utility equipment.

And that’s before you get to the annexes prescribing activities for more specific challenges such as evacuation, damage assessment, and animal care.

That sweeping plan, and the monthly LEPC meetings, attempt to anticipate most possible hazards (the plan ranks communicable disease as the eighth-highest-priority risk the County faces) without knowing for sure what’s coming when. In principle, the planning infrastructure allows County officials to act quickly, efficiently, and effectively when a crisis does emerge.

Like now.

Doug Dodge, the county’s director of emergency services, is the author of the Emergency Operations Plan and, now, the incident co-commander as the county reacts to the spreading novel coronavirus. Dodge spoke with The Monitor on March 18.

The county’s Emergency Operations Plan is really impressive.

Thanks. Updating it took two years. We tried to get a wide range of agencies and community organizations involved.

But the it doesn’t specifically anticipate a global pandemic.

No. It’s more about a structure and guidelines that relieve us from thinking so much on our toes. That still happens, because every situation is different, but the plan gives us a framework. It provides the Incident Command System structure, and templates for alerts and warnings – which methods will we use to reach out to people. 

Part of the balance of developing a plan is between specificity and flexibility. For some of the things we don’t deal with as often, the instructions are more specific. The things that emerge more often, the guidelines are more general, to allow us to rely on the expertise on the ground.

It’s a very broad document.

The Local Emergency Planning Committee meets every month. What happens there?

The Emergency Operations Plan is always on the agenda. Generally, we take a look at one of the annexes on rotating basis. Recently, we started cybersecurity review. It helps prepare us for one of these incidents. The biggest problem is the volunteer nature of public safety services, like fire companies. Meetings are difficult for them to make. To get businesses to participate, we need to have meetings during the day. It’s hard to get volunteers then, so I also go to rural fire companies at their quarterly meetings and present information.

The plan does describe an Emergency Operations Center – which has now been activated. How does that work?

Most times, there is no physical operations center. I’m the incident commander, so the EOC is wherever I am. Sometimes the location of EOC becomes more important, when you need a place where commissioners can come together to make decision. But it’s all about coordination and management to make sure responders have what they need in managing the incident.

For this particular emergency, there’s a shared command between myself and Karen Wandel, the county’s public health department supervisor. We have designated a public information officer, [County Health Officer Joan Van Duynhoven], a safety officer [Jesse Hauer, the county’s public health emergency preparedness coordinator], and a finance section. Any functions not delegated are the responsibility of commander — but in this case, operations mostly fall on the health department.

With the Incident Command System approach, you always want folks working together. We’ve been heavily involved with all the county department heads in the county, because of the risk the virus poses for everyone. But the main players are the County Commissioners, the Public Health Department, and my office. The daily morning briefing is myself and Karen and her staff. That’s just about making sure we’re consistent about what we’re going to accomplish in a given day. We have to be flexible because everything changes so fast.

Right now, the County is focused on prevention. What would trigger a change in the that response?

The key one is infections: That would determine whether we’re going to change from a prevention posture to a mitigation posture. In Montana in general we’re trying to keep it from getting more widespread. I’m expecting in the next two weeks or so are going to be critical. But part of the problem with this is, it’s not something that anyone has had any experience with.

What do you think the future looks like?

I’d be surprised if we don’t see a case here in the next two weeks. But if we don’t, I’m not going to be letting my guard down at all. From everything we understand, I think this is going to be with us for a while. The question is about the severity and the speed with which that occurs. Hopefully we can keep that growth slow. The exponential part is what concerns me.

Most people don’t want to think about that.

That’s part of my job, to think about worst-case scenarios.

That must make you great at parties.

Yeah [laughing], I’m the guy wearing the black shirt.

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