While wildfire is the most likely major hazard we face in Jefferson County, our preparedness plans should be flexible enough to help us through any hazard we may face. We call this an all-hazard approach to preparedness. Every hazard will have its own specific preparation requirements, but every hazard will also share common problems that an all-hazard approach can help solve.
No matter the incident, one of the first steps is to gather accurate information to make good decisions. Jefferson County provides that kind of emergency information in several ways. For those that use social media, follow the Jefferson County, Montana, Sheriff’s Office Facebook page. Next, save the frequencies for the county’s emergency low-power FM radio station in your area. See the county’s website (jeffersoncounty-mt.gov) for those frequencies and corresponding locations, and while you’re there, sign up for emergency phone notifications. If you just have a cell phone, we can’t reach you unless you sign yourself up.
While Jefferson County will use all those methods in the event of an emergency, such notifications do take time implement. Also, our priority will always be to try to reach those who are most at risk from an incident. We may not have time to address both those who need the information for life safety reasons and those who may not be directly impacted but just want to know what happened. Finally, if a disaster causes extreme damage to infrastructure, it is possible that such notifications may not arrive at all. These are all reasons we encourage residents to never wait to be told to evacuate or implement their own emergency plans should they feel unsafe.
Related to information gathering, the next important parts of all-hazard planning are communication, route and shelter planning. If you work far from where your loved ones are, how do you plan to contact them or meet up with them, or where do you want them to go to do so? One solution is to have at least two out of area contacts that everyone in your family can call or text to act as a conduit for family information. Another may be to visit with trusted neighbors and friends about how each of you could help the other in the event of an emergency. Further, do you have alternate routes or locations to meet up in case one route or location is compromised? This may be a family member’s, friend’s or neighbor’s house that is not impacted by an incident.
Neighborhoods should also track their own resources and needs to be able to efficiently help each other in the event of a major incident. This component of preparedness is called "mapping Your neighborhood." Using this tool, we aren’t mapping roads, but rather discovering what skills and resources your friends and neighbors were willing to share to support each other if the worst were to happen—and, importantly, finding out what specific neighbors may need that extra help.
There are a few more steps to complete your all-hazard preparedness. All of us should have at least a 72-hour kit of food and water per family member on hand, but preferably enough to last up to a week or more. Such a kit should also include any required medications and include any pet and livestock needs. Alternate power and heat supplies are also important, but it’s critical to utilize such resources safely. Generators or outdoor heating or cooking appliances should never be operated indoors or in garages due to the threat of carbon monoxide poisoning or accidental fires.
It can be daunting to try to achieve all these basic preparedness steps at once, as budgets and time can constrain us from achieving our goals. The important part of preparedness is to just get started, however, and to keep plugging away as we can.
The steps noted here just scratch the surface of emergency preparedness. For more information, you can contact Jefferson County’s Office of Emergency Management at (406) 225-4035. Planning documents are also available online at Jefferson County’s website (jeffersoncounty-mt.gov) under the "government" tab and the "Disaster and Emergency Services" section. Jefferson County has a small but dedicated group of emergency response personnel who work mightily to help those impacted during emergencies, but we all must do our part to prepare for emergencies.
Doug Dodge is Jefferson County's fire warden and disaster and emergency services coordinator.