August 27, 2007 By Jim McKay
As emergency manager of Washoe County, Nev., Aaron Kenneston is responsible for developing training, and response and recovery efforts from all hazards. That includes extensive planning for all phases of emergency management at the Regional Emergency Operations Center.
Kenneston's credentials are impeccable. He served on active duty in the Army National Guard for nearly 25 years, retiring as a colonel. During his career, he ran a military emergency operations center and responded to floods, civil unrest, state-level security events, and search and rescue missions.
He has served during major emergencies, including the local flood of the Truckee River in Nevada on New Year's Eve 2006, a snow emergency in January 2005, the Andrew fire in 2004 in Nevada and the Hurricane Katrina evacuation. He holds two master's degrees.
Could you outline the different planning phases for an emergency response and discuss why it's important to break down training into phases?
I describe the four phases of emergency management as mitigation, planning, training, and response and recovery. There are some variations on the names of these phases and actions, for example the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) often replaces the term mitigation with "prevention."
I use mitigation because FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] requires every jurisdiction to prepare a hazard mitigation plan. This is the basis of all actions, identifying and ranking hazards in the community and collaboratively developing strategies to reduce the impact or eliminate these hazards. Planning and training are the ways we test our written emergency plans for validity, identify areas for improvement, and ensure that our procedures are practiced and fresh in the minds of public safety officials and first responders. The response phase involves coordinating the actions of the various response agencies and disciplines, providing strategic guidance and material support to incident commanders, as well as coordinating resources from the state and federal government.
Recovery takes the longest period of time and begins with preliminary damage assessment, includes individual and public assistance, and continues until every mitigation project approved as a result of the disaster is complete.
Of course these phases can be concurrent and are a continuous process.
What are the differences and similarities between being a colonel in the National Guard and being a county-level emergency manager?
Well, I certainly miss my almost 25 years in the military: the camaraderie, responsibilities and sense of patriotic duty. As a colonel, I had a very large staff, hundreds of soldiers under my direct command, and millions of dollars in equipment and operating budget.
As a civilian emergency manager, I have one assistant. I have no direct command authority of any response agency, and a limited budget. So more finesse and cooperative, supportive relationships are required. In both roles, there is pride in being a public servant and a sense of contributing to the public good.
Certainly many of the leadership skills and emergency procedures are also very similar. The types of people who volunteer for the military and the people who become firefighters, law enforcement and health professionals share common traits as well. Of course the military has a civilian emergency support role, operates emergency operations centers and responds to all types of disasters, so these experiences have definitely served me well.
Since your tenure as emergency manager for Washoe County, which disaster made you the most nervous or was the most difficult to manage?
In the few short years that I've been a civilian emergency manager, our county has experienced about a half-dozen local, state and federally declared disasters. We had a major winter storm on New Year's Eve 2004-2005, and the very next New Year's Eve we experienced a 50-year flood. Both of these events had federal disaster declarations and taxed state and local resources to the maximum. But it also brought out the best in our region and caused our response community to work together even more closely on emergency preparedness.
Our hazard mitigation plan identifies 13 hazards in our region. These range from earthquakes to avalanches. But the most imminent threat that we face every year is wildland fires. Because of the areas of rapid growth, and the urban and wildland relationship of our region, this causes me the most concern. Our other high-probability disasters, for example flooding and severe storms, allow us advance warning. Wildfires seldom allow this luxury. They can be immensely destructive, are totally unpredictable and can overwhelm local resources quickly.