Emergency assistance from federal and state agencies may not arrive on the scene immediately following a disaster. Indeed, Ready.gov tells us to prepare food, water and other supplies to last on our own for 72 hours (three days). This scenario is especially relevant in predominantly rural areas such as western Massachusetts. If delays occur and people seek help locally, what happens?
Local Response by Faith-Based and Community-Based Organizations
Reflecting his decades of emergency experience on the local, county, state and federal levels, Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate observed in The National Disaster Recovery Framework:
“When disaster strikes, the initial services provided may not come from government, but rather from churches, synagogues, mosques and other faith-based and community organizations…FEMA is working to improve our preparedness through the Whole Community framework.”
Berkshire COAD and Pioneer Valley COAD
Given that reality, Community Organizations Active in Disasters (COADs) can connect a broad cross-section of groups that are likely to respond in order to coordinate planning, best practices, training, and resources. In western Massachusetts two COADs have recently been initiated and meet regularly: Berkshire COAD and Pioneer Valley COAD (for Franklin, Hampshire and Hampden Counties). Each COAD welcomes participation by more faith-based groups, community-based organizations, and local businesses to prepare in advance, to collaborate in disaster response and to aid in long-term recovery.
Western Massachusetts COAD Summit Outreach
To encourage COAD skills sharing, networking and engagement in emergency operations planning, the Western Region Homeland Security Advisory Council (WRHSAC) sponsored a COAD Summit in Northampton on March 26, 2014. Organized by the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, pre-Summit outreach invited participation from faith-based and community-based organizations, hospitals, schools, colleges, businesses, emergency management directors, first responders, local government and state agencies.
COAD Summit Participants
In response, staff members and volunteers representing a broad cross-section of organizations and municipalities from Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden and Hampshire Counties took part along with county, state and federal agencies. For example:
- Community-based emergency response groups: American Red Cross, Medical Reserve Corps (MRC), Disaster Animal Response Team (DART) and Community Emergency Response Team (CERT).
- Faith-based organizations: First Congregational Church, UCC of Brimfield, Catholic Charities Agency, Lutheran Social Services and Raising Hope Together.
- Community organizations: Elder Services of Berkshire County, Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, Friends of the Homeless, Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, Stavros Center for Independent Living, Street Angels and United Way.
- Municipalities: Local town and city governments ranging from Ashfield and Charlemont to Springfield and West Springfield were well represented, including emergency management directors, first responders, public health and other agencies.
- Regional Planners: Berkshire County Boards of Health Association, Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, Franklin Regional Council of Governments, Hampshire Public Health Preparedness Coalition, Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, Western Region Homeland Security Advisory Council.
- Federal and State Government: FEMA Region 1, Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA), Massachusetts State Police, Departments of Health, Mental Health and Transitional Assistance in the Commonwealth.
A few unusual participants were of the four-legged variety—Certified Therapy Dogs, accompanied by their humans who volunteer with Bright Spot Therapy Dogs, Inc. As we have seen in the aftermath of recent disasters, therapy dogs can provide comfort and caring through the human-canine bond. This can be a vital resource to include in Community Organizations Active in Disasters.
COAD Summit Program
Joining in a “big tent” gathering, participants enjoyed informative workshops, problem solving, and networking with others who share an enthusiasm for helping their communities to prepare, respond and recover from emergencies. The keynote speaker was Cathy McCann[u8] , Chief Operating Officer for the Community FoodBank of New Jersey and long-term Chairperson of New Jersey Voluntary Agencies Active in Disaster. With extensive experience in responding to multiple disasters, including 9-11 and Superstorm Sandy, Cathy emphasized how regions that had organized COADs proved to have more effective response and recovery efforts.
COAD Summit Workshop topics included:
- The Emergency Communication Chain
- Volunteers at the Helm
- Who’s There After the Disaster?
- Dial 2-1-1
- Shelters in Any Storm
- Western Region Homeland Security Resources & Outreach
- Intro to the Incident Command System
- Faith (Groups) in Action
- Shoulders to Lean On: Mental Health Post Disaster
- Year-Round Engagement
Energized by the Western Massachusetts COAD Summit, the Berkshire COAD and the Pioneer Valley COAD will continue to build capacity and coordinate with Massachusetts VOAD, Massachusetts 2-1-1 and other federal, state, regional and local agencies as well as faith-based and community-based organizations. They welcome inquiries from potential new participants.