Buncombe’s plan for the worst

“Mass casualty event.” “Decontamination action guidelines.” “Emergency mortuary plan.” Not exactly light lunchtime topics.

But such sobering terminology is common at Buncombe County’s Department of Emergency Services, which is charged with coordinating the county’s response to disasters both natural and human-made. Among the department’s duties is compiling a comprehensive emergency-operations plan—a hefty document containing a laundry list of dire threats, what’s to be done about them, and who’s to do it.

Xpress obtained Buncombe’s 375-page EOP as part of a national freedom-of-information audit organized to test local-government openness. The easy-to-get but rarely read plan offers a window into the world of county staffers who must ponder the grimmest of worst-case scenarios. The document, which covers everything from violent weather events to bioterrorism, is intended to provide “all the necessary elements to insure that local government can fulfill its legal responsibilities for emergency preparedness,” according to the plan’s forward.

In concise, bureaucratic prose, the EOP specifies the command-and-control systems that would be implemented during various kinds of emergencies. It addresses such areas as emergency communications, hazard-containment methods, and public warning, evacuation and shelter plans, among other practical concerns. The plan also spells out such weighty matters as the line of succession for county-government posts (in the event that any officials perished) and a county “state of emergency” declaration that would mandate curfews and ban firearms outside of the gun owner’s property. (See the EOP excerpts that accompany this article, or view the entire document at www.mountainx.com/xpressfiles/.)

In short, the EOP is the county’s all-purpose game plan for maintaining public safety—and public order—come what may.

Emergencies and the right to know

While much of the EOP’s language will sound familiar to anyone who’s kept up with the burgeoning field of disaster planning since the 9/11 attacks, the document’s origins stretch back considerably further than 2001.

One of the worst industrial disasters in history occurred in 1984, when a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, released 40 tons of a deadly gas, killing thousands and harming many more. In response to that and other hazardous-materials incidents, the U.S. Congress passed the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986.

The law requires states to assign every community to an emergency-planning district. (In North Carolina, each of the 100 counties has its own district.) Each district must prepare an action plan to be implemented in the event of a toxic-substance release or other sizable disaster. The plans identify potential threats to public safety, outline high-risk zones and evacuation routes, and lay out how local-government and law-enforcement personnel are to respond during various disaster scenarios.

The law also requires that these emergency plans be made available to the public upon request. And in January, several national organizations—the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government, the National Freedom of Information Coalition and the Society of Environmental Journalists—joined forces to test how accessible the plans really are. More than 400 volunteers, including Xpress reporter Rebecca Bowe, took part in a nationwide audit to determine how readily local officials would furnish the emergency plans and, if they did, what those documents would reveal about the state of local disaster planning.

In each community, the requester showed up unannounced at their local emergency-planning department, asked for a copy of the emergency plan, and then told the audit organizers how it went.

The results were released in preparation for National Sunshine Week (March 11-17), a campaign to focus attention on governments’ willingness to share information about their operations. Nationwide, 44 percent of the documents were provided by authorities, but 20 percent were denied in part and 36 percent were denied in full. In North Carolina, meanwhile, 68 percent of the requests were honored in full while 21 percent were denied. Concerns about terrorism were often cited as reasons for not providing the emergency plan, according to the audit results.

In Buncombe County, local officials promptly complied with the law. Within seconds of our request, Department of Emergency Services staffers furnished a CD containing the entire document. They even invited our reporter, who identified herself only as an interested citizen, to enter the office and discuss various aspects of the plan.

For all its exhaustive detail, however, Buncombe’s EOP doesn’t quite cover everything locals might need to know in the event of a local disaster. For example, in a part of the document reserved for maps of evacuation routes, there are instead text place-holders, one of which lists the county’s major intersections.

Asked about the matter, Emergency Services Director Jerry VeHaun explains that his department and other local authorities are primed to prepare such maps on a case-by-case basis, depending on the nature and location of the disaster. “Here, evacuation’s not like it would be at, say, the beach, where you have set evacuation routes,” he notes. “There are just so many variables, depending on the hazard and location. … Evacuating Biltmore Village is very different than evacuating Barnardsville.”

And, as VeHaun points out, the EOP is something of a living document that grows and changes as new threats emerge. The two most recent additions, he notes, are annexes addressing bioterrorism and pandemic flu. The department will oversee revisions and updates to the general plan this spring, he says.

Given all the crises evoked by the emergency plan, is Buncombe a particularly dangerous place to live? “No,” says VeHaun, who’s served as the county’s emergency director for 35 years. “But we have to look at all the potentials and weigh all the risks.”

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