Opinion: COVID-19 shows Michigan needs better emergency management

Jack O’Malley

We’ve been championing our frontline workers and first responders who are working hard to keep us safe during COVID-19. But there is another group we never hear much about. They work behind the scenes for their communities and when it “hits the fan,” their pre-planning makes a major difference. These men and women are known as emergency managers.

In my years in broadcasting, I sat in on meetings with these folks in northern Michigan. They prepare for every conceivable event — such as major storms, power outages, plane crashes, chemical leaks, active shooters and terrorist attacks — and hope they never come to fruition. They coordinate with police, fire, hospitals, utilities, schools, road commissions and others on a long list. Since the September 11 attacks, this group has grown from the person who knew where the flashlights and first aid kits were to a large cast of trained and skilled professionals.

The Emergency Management and Homeland Security Division currently is housed within the Michigan State Police. They are fantastic people and great police officers, but the role of handling wide-scale emergencies has outgrown them in many ways. Grand Traverse County Emergency Manager Gregg Bird shared with the Joint Select Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic during testimony on July 23 that emergency management has evolved and expanded to handle more and more crises — many of which I listed above. He feels it’s about to evolve again with massive pandemics. And our system needs to evolve with it.

During COVID-19, it has become evident that the governor is not communicating pertinent information to EMHSD. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer needs to begin treating emergency management as a priority, not an afterthought.

Why should the person in charge of carrying out executive orders locally have to wait to hear it from the governor through a press conference on the internet, just like everybody else? They should be alerted from a command center hours earlier so they can have time to prepare.

These orders would be less confusing and better implemented with proper communication. Everyone in emergency management knows the old adage of “emergencies are local up.” The state receives a huge amount of money from the federal government to help fund our planning and response, but locals receive only a fraction of this money. As a result, our current system has created challenges for our local emergency managers.

In the beginning of COVID-19, the top command structure for our state’s emergency management unit was transferred out and MSP brought in new leaders. With this change, the people with the most experience were no longer heading up emergency response — they were now down the hall. Staff tasked with emergency management during this public health emergency were also furloughed, limiting our state’s ability to get a handle on response.

These past couple of years, our state has experienced dangerous polar vortexes, rising lake levels, dam failures and now a global pandemic. While we don’t see hurricanes like the Gulf Coast, earthquakes like California or mammoth twisters like Tornado Alley in the Great Plains, we do encounter our share of emergencies. The people of Michigan deserve an independent emergency management director like most other states have. Our state is an outlier for how this is done.

I hope my colleagues in the Legislature and the governor have the wisdom and fortitude to develop a better plan for future crises. A top-notch emergency management system will allow Michigan to navigate the rough seas emergencies bring, and sail towards a brighter future once the worst is behind us.

State Rep. Jack O’Malley, R-Lake Ann, is in his first term serving the 101st District. He also chairs the House Transportation Committee.