WASHINGTON, DC – Today, Sima Merick, President of the National Emergency Managers Association and Executive Director Ohio Emergency Management Agency, agreed with U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), Ranking Member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, that the $1 billion investment in Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities Program or the BRIC Program included in the bipartisan infrastructure package would increase preparedness and help save lives. Portman led efforts to craft and pass the bipartisan infrastructure package in the Senate, and it now awaits action in the House of Representatives.
Portman also heard from state-local experts on how Congress can better assist with natural disaster preparedness efforts. John S. Butler, Second Vice President of the International Association of Fire Chiefs and Fire Chief, Fairfax County, Virginia, highlighted how Portman’s bipartisan National Urban Search & Rescue Response System Act, which passed Congress in 2016, has worked well to enhance compensation and protections for Urban Search and Rescue teams and require FEMA to finance and replace certain equipment. Chief Butler explained that more funding is needed to meet the demands of increasing natural disasters.
Finally, Portman heard from Director Merick about how Ohioans and all Americans can better prepare in order to avoid situations that would require rescue, like having an action plan and communicating with first responders if your home has a safe room.
Excerpts from the questioning can found below and a video can be found here.
Portman: “Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and again, I thank the witnesses for your testimony today and more importantly, for what you do every day. Chief Butler, we just talked a little about Urban Search and Rescue. Back in 2016, you may recall, we passed legislation that was worked on in this Committee called the National Urban Search and Rescue Response Systems Act, and it enhanced compensation and protections for Urban Search and Rescue teams and required FEMA to finance and replace certain equipment used by those teams. How has that worked? Can you give us a sense of whether the legislation was helpful or not and what more could be done to improve that legislation? You just mentioned the federal grant funding, the USR system continuing. But can you give us a sense of where we are with regard to implementation of that legislation and what else could be done?”
John S. Butler, Second Vice President of the International Association of Fire Chiefs and Fire Chief, Fairfax County, Virginia: “Yes, thank you. So we ask that Congress can appropriate, you know, $50 million for the USR system in FY 2022. This funding would allow the USR teams to replace current transportation assets like you mentioned, sir, which are nearing the end of their lives. An increased funding also would allow FEMA to conduct three or four full-scale exercises each year to provide training along with operational readiness. I’ll stop there and answer the genesis of your question, how has it worked so far. It worked well. It has worked well up until this point. But as we’ve talked about this morning, the increase in demands and the increase in weather extremes and other needs to deploy USR teams require that we keep up with the pace and the funding and the infrastructure. So the USR teams will be able to improve their capabilities for responding to subterranean incidents like tranche or tunnel collapses, as somewhat of an emerging threat. And also the USR teams will be able to validate the use of new technology like unmanned aerial systems or robots. So the IFC recommends increasing the funds for the USR system to adequately catalog and validate federal and state and tribal and territorial local search teams.”
Portman: “Great, thanks Chief Butler, I appreciate it. We just celebrated our USR team locally for the good work that they did at the most recent hurricanes. But we also had a kind of a sober commemoration of the 20 year anniversary of 9/11, where Ohio Task Force One, Dayton, Cinncinati area, you know, took off immediately. My wife actually saw them on the highway heading toward New York. She was coming from DC, and she saw them in Pennsylvania, lights flashing that morning. And it’s a great system. I’m a huge supporter. It’s a classic example of state-local. There’s so much training and so much expertise that FEMA gets essentially for free because you have these firefighters and others, doctors, people with trained dogs and so on. And they do a lot of this just as volunteers and provide so much help and resources on a national level. So the search and rescue teams in every one of our states responds with mutual aid. So I’m a huge supporter, and I think, frankly, it’s an investment that really pays off. So I thank you for your service. And thanks for what you said today, and we’ll follow up with you on your comments.
“Ms. Merick, thanks for what you do in Ohio, again. One thing you talked about in your testimony that I thought was interesting was this safe room rebate program to help prevent Ohioans from needing assistance from an Urban Search and Rescue team, as an example. Can you talk about that and what other ways that individuals and families can better prepare in order to avoid situations that would require rescue?”
Sima Merick, President of the National Emergency Managers Association and Executive Director Ohio Emergency Management Agency: “Yeah, thank you, Senator. You know, our safe room rebate program in Ohio has just been phenomenal. We have over 450 safe rooms that have been put into residential plots of land. And one of the things that we do with that is to ensure that when people build a safe room or they have an in-ground safe room that they’re coordinating with their first responders to let them know, like the codes of the geocoding of where it’s at in the event debris would fall on top of that storm shelter, so they would know to go and clear that place first. But otherwise, that’s pretty much the response they would have to do. Some of the other ways I think that families could better prepare to avoid these situations would make a plan for all hazards to include severe weather. Ensure you’ve included a communication plan. How will you let people know that you’re okay? Recently during Ida, I had gotten a phone call from a friend of mine who has family down in Louisiana and said, you know, I can’t get a hold of them. I don’t know if they’re okay. I don’t know if they have power. I don’t know if they got out. So it’s important, very important that you have a communications plan and how you’ll reconnect or where you’ll meet after an event. Know how you’ll receive information about those events. Have alerts active on your phone. Enable them for the wireless emergency alert. Obtain a weather radio to keep in your house, work, places of worship, and other locations that may have your phones off or silent.
“Probably the last thing I want to make sure is that if you have a safe room, communicate that to your first responders. And this is so important in the community. While first responders, to include our Urban Search and Rescue and Ohio Task Force One are trained to look for survivors. If you can facilitate their efforts by letting them know that you have one, they have a chance to save more people because they’ll just do a drive-by your place to make sure that that’s not covered by debris, and then they’ll be able to move on.”
Portman: “All good advice. Thank you. And I hope people are listening and will listen to you. Research has shown that $1 of mitigation saves, on average, $6 on future disaster costs. And we mentioned earlier that the Storm Act is in the bipartisan infrastructure bill that’s now before the House of Representatives. But we also have something in there called the Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities Program or the BRIC Program. There’s a billion dollars for that. How important is mitigation for preparedness, Ms. Merick? And how has BRIC impacted Ohio?”
Ms. Merick: “Well, Senator, the first year of BRIC program, Ohio only received the set aside amount. We, like most of the country, did not receive competitive funding due to some of the technical aspects of the program. Assuming passage of a bipartisan infrastructure bill, we will have projects ready to go for the competitive package that we put together for the first year of funding. We’ll need to see how those projects fit within the future notice of funding opportunities that come out from FEMA. But of course, we do appreciate having this additional pot of money to be able to tap into. We just have to figure out over the years the best way to be able to do that with some of those technical benchmarks that we need to meet.”
Portman: “Well my time is expired, but we will follow up with you on some specifics on how to improve BRIC going forward. Hopefully, this will pass the House Representatives even this week, and we’ll have that ability for Ohio and states to apply for those competitive grants. And also we’ll follow up with you on the bureaucracy of FEMA and how to reduce some of the costs and inefficiencies and some of the delays that you have experienced. Thank you, Ms. Merick, thanks to all our witnesses. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.”