Florida Wants More Private Firms Involved in Emergency Planning

By | May 23, 2011

Florida’s new emergency management chief said he wants the private sector to be more involved in the state’s disaster preparedness efforts so that local economies can recover quickly after hurricanes.

“They want their employees to be safe and well and they want the communities in which they operate to remain viable. It is our responsibility to ensure they have the tools necessary to do so,” said Bryan Koon, the new director of the Division of Emergency Management, at the annual Governor’s Hurricane Conference last week in Fort Lauderdale. “They need to know how to engage, where to engage and how they can tie into our emergency management structure.”

Koon spent the previous five years overseeing the emergency management operations for Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s more than 8,500 stores and more than 2 million employees worldwide. A former Naval officer, he also spent several years in the White House Military Office where he developed and maintained programs to ensure the continuity of government and operations after a disaster.

Koon told reporters that he brings a global perspective to the state’s emergency management team, with experience gleaned from hurricanes, wildfires, volcanic eruptions and tsunami risks.

“Because we were a worldwide company — we’re in 50 states and 28 countries — there was never a day that something didn’t happen,” Koon said.

The best way Florida can prepare for hurricanes is to ensure that private citizens and businesses are prepared to take care of themselves in a storm’s immediate aftermath, so that the state government can focus on restoring infrastructure and other vital services, he said.

While officials worry that residents have grown complacent about their disaster risk after five years without a major hurricane making a U.S. landfall, Koon said advances in mobile technology over the same period of time mean that people are getting more information faster than before.

Plus, recent disasters such as the Japan earthquake, tornadoes in Alabama and flooding along the Mississippi River have highlighted how vulnerable communities can be, he added.

“I think what you have is a heightened awareness for the potential for any person to be impacted by disaster in their community,” Koon said.

Along with taking personal responsibility to be a survivor and not a victim — an idea promoted by Federal Emergency Management Agency Craig Fugate — Koon emphasized the need for the state to help businesses prepare to get back to work as quickly as possible after a hurricane so they can provide services the government does not, such as groceries or home repair materials.

The Florida Division of Emergency Management has hired a private sector coordinator to engage companies in disaster training, improve communication and ensure that small- and medium-sized businesses have as many resources as larger corporations, Koon said.

“We want to make sure we can restore the economic tax base in a community — that people are able to get back to work, that children are able to get back to school, that we’re able to pull the government back out and get that community back on its feet,” he said.

The state also was working to streamline communication among Florida’s counties and to improve support for smaller counties with tighter budgets and fewer resources, Koon said.

More than 1,740 emergency managers, meteorologists, first responders and government officials from 59 Florida counties, 31 states and three foreign countries are attending the weeklong conference focused on preparations for the upcoming storm season.

Addressing the conference’s general session, Gov. Rick Scott praised Koon’s leadership at Wal-Mart.

“I chose Bryan to lead our state emergency operations because he understands that a rapid and coordinated response to an emergency can safeguard our state’s economy and the people of our state,” said Scott, who campaigned last year on promises to create jobs and boost Florida’s lagging economy.

Scott announced Koon’s appointment in December. He also has moved the Division of Emergency Management into the executive office of the governor to streamline communication and reduce costs across all the federal, state and local agencies involved in Florida’s disaster readiness and response.

The six-month Atlantic hurricane season begins June 1. As government officials do this time of year, Scott urged Florida residents to prepare for storms well before any develop in the tropics.

He awkwardly joked that he’s so prepared, he has an extra roof.

To some polite laughter, Scott explained that he had had to replace the roof on his Naples mansion after the storms of 2004 and 2005. An undamaged portion of the roof he replaced remains in storage.

“We will not have a hurricane in Naples, Fla. I can guarantee it,” he said. “We will never have a hurricane, since I spent that money.”

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