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Lewis officials told communication, community awareness are emergency management keys

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LOWVILLE — A state emergency services official on Monday told Lewis County legislators to look for communication skills and community awareness when replacing their retiring emergency manager.

“You thrive on personal relationships,” William R. Davis Jr., acting director of the state Office of Emergency Management, said during a legislative work session. “It’s a lot less science and a lot more art.”

The role of an emergency manager is not necessarily to command anyone, but to coordinate efforts during an emergency and cultivate relationships with community and emergency leaders beforehand so their help can be enlisted when needed, he said.

“You’ve got to kind of bring it all together,” Mr. Davis said.

An emergency manager also should have some education and experience with at least one aspect of emergency services, a “broad spectrum of understanding” about the field and the street smarts — or, in a more rural area like Lewis County, the “country road smarts” — needed to understand the unique challenges and strengths of the county and its populace, he said.

As an example, Mr. Davis said, emergency officials here must recognize the importance of cattle and other large animals to the local economy and plan ahead to determine how disruptions to the agricultural industry can be handled.

Solid communication with state emergency management officials, knowledge of incident command structure and understanding of procedures to successfully seek ongoing grant money and post-disaster funding also are very important, he said.

The state director and Michael Sprague, SEMO’s regional director in Syracuse, also attended a meeting of the county’s Local Emergency Planning Council on Monday. They were invited to address the county Legislature with the understanding that the county’s longtime emergency manager and fire coordinator, James M. Martin, plans to retire in late September.

“We have to fill a big void,” said Legislature Vice Chairman Craig P. Brennan, R-Deer River.

Mr. Davis acknowledged that replacing a 10-year emergency manager with 40-plus years of experience in fire and emergency service may be difficult, but he applauded county officials for seeking input from state officials. “Then, you can make an informed decision,” he said.

The acting director noted that in his six months on the job, he has learned a lot about Lewis County through snowstorms, flash flooding in Port Leyden and the recent tornado that struck near Lowville.

“Since February, Lewis County has been on my radar, no pun intended,” Mr. Davis said. “You’ve gone through some difficult times when it comes to weather.”

Mr. Sprague said that adaptability is key for an emergency manager, noting that Mr. Martin needed to know federal and state procedures to seek the more than $1 million in reimbursement for Port Leyden and the surrounding community following the flooding while also being able to handle emergencies internally when such help is not available.

He equated the position to that of the Maytag repairman from the old television commercials, who may not be seen often, but has a variety of tools to handle problems when they do arise.

Along with the state-mandated emergency manager/fire coordinator post, Lewis County has a non-mandated emergency medical services coordinator post, created in 2006, in that office.

When asked how other counties handle emergency services coordination, Mr. Davis said there is “not one model for it to work,” and leaders should simply focus their resources on the most pressing needs of their communities.

Some type of administrative support for grant applications is helpful, given the complexity of the process, he said.

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