By Benjamin Bullard
The Cullman Times
The Cullman County Emergency Management Agency (EMA) receives nearly a quarter of its annual operating budget from a series of Emergency Management Performance Grant (EMPGs) federal funds for which the agency must continually qualify in order to receive.
In 2011, approximately $43,000 of the EMA’s $188,000 budget came from EMPGs; the rest came from Cullman County and the City of Cullman, as well as the voluntary funding the county’s remaining 10 municipalities provide.
“The federal money is a pretty big chunk of our budget,” said EMA director Phyllis Little.
“But the funding for all the EMAs breaks down differently, depending on the county. If you look around the state, some counties only have small, one-person offices, and they may operate with only $75,000. And of that, they may not receive as much EMPG funding as we do — but what they do receive may be as much as 50 percent of their entire annual budget.”
So, earlier this year, when the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) informed state and local EMAs across the country they’d have to start doing some things differently in order to remain eligible for future EMPG funds, everybody took notice.
For Little and Kelly Allen — the local EMA’s two-man staff — the new requirements aren’t exactly punitive. They just add a layer of bureaucracy, some few scheduling challenges, and a little trepidation as they begin pestering local leaders, law enforcement, medical services and fire departments to turn in some additional information to comply with the new requirements.
“It’s going to mean taking work home on the weekends; it’s going to mean working at night. And, most of all, it’s going to mean I’m going to have to bother a lot of people who probably aren’t going to want to talk about it right then and there,” she added. “All I really ask is that, if Kelly and I start sending you emails and trying to get you on the phone as we go through this, it’s for a really good reason. Just bear with us.”
Little said the extra effort is worth the federal money her office stands to lose if it doesn’t meet the March 2013 deadline to meet the new requirements. And, she’s confident the office is up to the year-long challenge.
“I don’t have any choice,” she said. “I mean, if I don’t get this done, then Cullman County doesn’t get any federal EMA funding this year — and it may not be eligible to apply for federal funding for next year, either. But, really, a lot of these requirements are things that an EMA like ours is already doing — they’re just asking us to document it in a new format that’s still changing and nobody’s really figured out. We’ll definitely get it done; it will just mean we have to hustle.”
While the DHS has broken down the new EMPG guidelines into five categories, Little said the requirement that Cullman’s EMA rewrite its long-term Emergency Operations Plan (EOP) will be, by far, the most challenging.
“Our EOP — that’s essentially our master plan for how our community will respond to different emergency situations — we basically have to rewrite it,” she said. “When we did that from the ground up, in 2004, we hired an outside contractor to write the plan, and it cost about $15,000. We’re not doing that this time — we’re doing it ourselves. It’s extra work, for sure, but it will save us a chunk of money.
“Thankfully, much of our existing plan provides a good base for a rewrite. Unlike the 2004 plan, we won’t have to tear this one up by the roots and start fresh.”
* Benjamin Bullard can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by telephone at 734-2131 ext. 270.