Cannon Beach may hire a full-time emergency manager as soon as July.
The position is part of a larger effort driven by City Manager Bruce St. Denis to restructure the way the city approaches emergency planning.
The city contracts emergency planning to consultant Stacy Burr. But St. Denis told the City Council Tuesday, April 10, the part-time consulting model is not delivering the results the city needs to be prepared.
“We are not where a lot of people think we are,” he said.
After reviewing practices for the past four months, St. Denis is looking to retool the Emergency Management Team, as well as shift more of the focus to recovery plans. The emergency manager would conduct training, follow up with logistics like cache supplies and coordinate preparation policies.
St. Denis said the cost would be about $40,000 more than what the city is spending on consulting and a part-time emergency management position that was never filled this year.
Burr could not be reached for comment about the potential change.
“Unless you have someone working all the time to focus on this, it doesn’t happen. I think it will upgrade the emergency management and resiliency of the city,” St. Denis said. “It’s a relatively small investment with tremendous payback.”
While Cannon Beach has the largest Community Emergency Response Team and Medical Reserve Corps in Clatsop County, St. Denis said a lack of continuity in training and planning has slowed progress the city could be making. He used the example of a tabletop exercise held last month aimed at teaching hotels and vacation rentals to prepare for a tsunami.
St. Denis took issue with how only a few from the hospitality industry attended, how short the exercise was and how there appeared to be no arrangement for following up or reaching beyond this group of people.
Red flags were also raised when a tsunami watch prompted by an Alaska earthquake was issued earlier this year. The protocol for how the city was supposed to respond to a tsunami watch, versus a tsunami warning, was not clear, St. Denis said.
“I think sometimes we assume we’re ready (for an emergency) because we’ve talked about it once before,” he said.
St. Denis said there are deficits in recovery and how the city plans for lower-impact scenarios like wind storms or small-to-medium sized tsunamis. Most recent efforts have centered around evacuating people for a worst-case scenario.
If approved by the city’s budget committee, St. Denis would want the emergency manager to focus more on contracts that would help the town recover after a disaster — like clearing and disposing debris from the roadways.
“I think we can have a better, clearer message … re-evaluate some assumptions made in the past,” he said. “Right now we tell everyone to walk to South Wind. Well, that’s not likely to be built for a long time. But maybe if we look at the most recent (tsunami run-up projections) from (the Department of Geology and Mineral Industries), maybe we could find some new locations for shelters for smaller events and prepare for that.”
St. Denis draws his approach from his time as a city manager in Florida, where he was responsible for recovery efforts after hurricanes.
“No one prepares for a Category 5 hurricane — you can’t. But even if there is a Category 5, unless you get hit right at landfall, you’ll be facing a Category 4, 3 or 2 and you can prepare for those,” he said.
In general, city councilors were supportive of the idea of an emergency manager but questioned how it fit with other budget priorities like affordable housing.
“We’re actually making some progress with emergency preparedness,” City Councilor George Vetter said. “The reason we’re not making progress with affordable housing is because we’re not putting away any money toward it.”
But Les Wierson, an emergency preparedness committee member, and Lila Wickham, the head of the Medical Reserve Corps, both spoke about how the continuity of a full-time emergency manager would be helpful to community preparedness.
“I still don’t know my redundant communication plan. I still don’t know where I’ll be treating injured people,” Wickham said. “I think this would be helpful.”
The City Council gave St. Denis to go-ahead to tentatively start looking for job candidates, but will ultimately decide whether the position is created during budget committee hearings next month.
“I think with $40,000 more we’ll be getting a bang for our buck,” St. Denis said.