Thursday, December 14, 2017
Public safety

Tropical Storm Debby shows Hernando emergency operation center has a lot work to do

They have a heck of an Emergency Operations Center over at the Hernando Sheriff's Office in Brooksville.

The thick concrete walls are hurricane-proof, obviously, and look darn near bomb-proof.

At the annual media tour of the place, timed with the beginning of hurricane season, reporters hear how we'll be posted on every tiny fluctuation of wind, tide, rain and delivery of public services because, by gosh, we're the Sheriff's Office's partners in keeping the public informed.

And we get to see all of the features and gizmos designed to make this happen: Internet access, briefing rooms, enough wide-screen television screens to outfit a Beef 'O' Brady's.

We leave this 5-year-old, $6-million bunker/nerve center every year feeling sure the county is set to handle any disaster short of a UFO landing.

And then Debby comes along, the worst storm in several years.

The folks at the EOC do not invite the media to those well-equipped briefing rooms; they don't treat us like partners; they don't give us or anyone else in the county timely updates on even very major fluctuations such as the flood-related closing of the Suncoast Parkway.

True, Debby has been a damaging storm, but not an especially dangerous one. It probably didn't warrant the highest level of alert.

Even so, the lack of communication was stunning.

Though the storm has been raging since Saturday night, residents clicking on the county's Emergency Management website — hernandosheriff.org/em — Sunday and Monday were greeted by a blank screen and an invitation to return for "all of the latest information ... in the event of an emergency."

Sheriff's Office spokesman Lt. Michael Burzumato sent out his first real media alert on Monday morning, mostly a list of road closures that, as anyone who had been driving around the county at the time could tell you, was pitifully incomplete.

There was not a single word about shelters, evacuations or sandbags.

It wasn't until late Monday that Burzumato and the county's spokeswoman, Brenda Frazier, seemed to be working on the same page and not until 5 p.m. that Burzumato issued a media alert that included information about evacuations (none), shelters, sandbag distribution points and the kind of warnings about downed power lines and standing water that typically go out before storms even arrive.

And it wasn't until Tuesday morning, after a computer glitch was fixed, that updates began appearing on the Emergency Management website.

Luckily, Debby was benign enough that we can look at it as a very soggy dry run.

So what needs to change?

Media alerts should be more timely and complete, and, obviously, Emergency Management needs to make sure all of the issues with its website are resolved.

The county needs to designate either that site or a Facebook page as the definitive destination for storm information.

The Sheriff's Office, which runs Emergency Management, has to set up better lines of communications with Transportation Services and other relevant county departments, as well as agencies such as the American Red Cross.

Frazier and Burzumato need to decide who will be the go-to information source for reporters, and tell us before the next storm starts.

And most of all, Emergency Management director Cecilia Patella can't disappear from public view.

For years, it was standard practice for people in her job — the people who know most about any emergency — to tell the public about it directly.

Of course she's busy. But she could invite reporters from all media outlets to her state-of-the-art EOC for twice-a-day briefings.

Because getting the word out to the public is one of her most important jobs — and ours, her partners.

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