MANAGEMENT: Did That Actually Happen?

In a Bizarre Crisis, Emergency Planning Saves the Day [PM Magazine, August 2019]

Aug 1, 2019 | ARTICLE

By Brad Townsend, ICMA-CM

When your workday starts, it’s typically similar to any other workday. You may have a list of tasks to complete. It’s probably long, and you’ll be interrupted too many times to actually finish the items before the day ends. No problem because, as Scarlett O’Hara said in Gone with the Wind, tomorrow is another day.

But sooner or later, that typical day turns into a crisis management day. That’s when we must pitch the list, grab the emergency response plan, and focus on events at hand.

Here is one unique and bizarre situation that made me ask, “Did that actually happen?” It was a day to be grateful for emergency planning.

Into the Fray

A career in municipal management is a great mix of the ordinary and the extraordinary. The extraordinary may involve an unexpected death, extreme weather, a major accident, a terrorist attack, or a hazmat spill. Local government personnel are almost always drawn into the fray. In fact, they may be first responders and initiate coordinated emergency operations to deal with an incident.

Personnel responsible for emergency situations should be fully trained. Municipal leaders have used the Emergency Operation Center (EOC) approach when interdepartmental response is required. Public safety departments have been trained in and used the Incident Command Center (ICC) method for many years. Personnel are coordinated by a designated leader from a temporary post on-site.

A newer model is the National Incident Management System (NIMS) of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The NIMS protocol involves other departments as well and focuses on educating a variety of people. It guides stakeholders as they plan for and deal with different kinds of crises.

You can enroll in on-site training at the Emergency Management Institute (EMI) in Maryland or learn online. Modules are set up for elected officials, managers, administrative staff, public works personnel, and public safety officers. I highly recommend that staff periodically participate in tabletop and field drills as another way to prepare for that extraordinary day. That should help you and others step up and take action.

My Story

My day as public works director at the state capital in Springfield, Illinois, was near its end. But in the evening we were notified that multiple police and fire personnel had been called to a residential subdivision. We contacted a couple of public works crews and ordered them to the site.

I arrived on the scene and witnessed an astounding sight. Homes had collapsed, with some leaning into each other. Streets had sunk and cracked. Water was spewing from mains. It looked like the aftermath of an earthquake, but there had been no quake.

Firefighters set up an incident command post. Police officers and Sangamon County deputies secured the perimeter. Public works crews searched for valves and closed service lines.

Engineers identified the problem as mine subsidence. Central and southern Illinois was a prominent coal mining region. We pulled up an old map illustrating the known tunnels and shafts that had been dug since the 1890s. It did not show any in this neighborhood, but the map was obviously incomplete. Underground water had eroded shafts and tunnels, and eventually they collapsed. Thankfully, no one was injured or killed.

Despite the unusual nature of the catastrophe, all city and county departments were prepared to approach it as an incident response:

  • The mayor declared an emergency.
  • Actions included securing the neighborhood, shutting down utilities, checking all homes, and evacuating residents.
  • Churches and human services agencies provided temporary relocation services.
  • Because public information was critical, spokespersons were assigned the job of talking with media, communicating with residents, and reporting to elected officials. Internal communications were ongoing.
  • Insurance company representatives were notified promptly and arrived on the scene to process claims quickly and professionally.

Post-Crisis Takeaways

It was a blessing to be a small part of a collaboration of local government, faith-based institutions, civic agencies, utilities, and insurance companies in the wake of the catastrophe. Here’s what I learned:

  • You need to absorb what just happened, but shift gears to assist and serve (and be ready to lose some sleep, too).
  • It’s impossible to overemphasize the value of emergency preparation and training. Even though the mine subsidence incident was one we did not anticipate, our preparation and training were highly transferable.
  • While training available at the time was sufficient for public safety responders, others had little-to-no emergency response training. I was among those with minimal education at the time. This incident occurred using ICC, but before NIMS. I enrolled years later in the online NIMS program. There is no doubt that training of other personnel would have improved coordination and timeliness of the response. We should take advantage of the years of evolution in emergency response preparation.
  • It’s critical to declare the emergency as soon as possible to legitimize governmental and insurance claims.
  • Use the emergency response plan to marshal relevant responders and coordinate their efforts.
  • When the immediate crisis is under control, be ready to get back to the more conventional responsibilities of your job, too. They will not wait because an emergency just happened.

Brad Townsend, ICMA-CM, is a career municipal manager and consultant (




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