By Mathew Schumer
Tyrone Wells, the operations manager of the Prince George’s County Office of Emergency Management, gave a presentation about the recently updated County Emergency Operations Plan at the Oct. 11 meeting of the College Park City Council. After his presentation, the floor opened for a discussion about ways in which the city and its residents can better prepare for emergencies.
Wells described the county’s efforts, saying that his office coordinates crisis prevention and response.
“Our mission always has to do with life safety, stabilizing situations and property preservation,” he said. The office acts within the mandates of state and federal statutes to assist county departments and local non-governmental agencies.
Wells noted that his team does not directly handle most situations, but instead, they work as mediators between communities and governmental emergency-response organizations such as the Maryland Department of Emergency Management and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Some councilmembers suggested the county agencies could be doing more to aid residents directly.
Councilmember John Rigg (District 3) voiced concern. “Citizens in my community are wondering why they don’t hear from the county more often,” he said. Several other councilmembers, including Councilmember Denise Mitchell (District 4) shared their concerns, focussing, in particular, on communications apps used by the county to alert smartphone users to emergency conditions. According to the councilmembers, the University of Maryland’s emergency notification system is more effective than the county’s system.
“We do the best we can to push out information following events,” Wells said. “When the footprint of an event is larger, it’s going to take us a bit longer to get that information out.”
Councilmember Fazlul Kabir (District 1) asked Wells about other sources for alerts and information before and during emergencies. Wells recommended turning to local news media or purchasing a dedicated weather radio.
“A lot of our senior citizens don’t even own a phone,” said Councilmember Maria Mackie (District 4), underscoring that a portion of the city’s population requires extra support during emergencies. She stated that the county should be making more of an effort to reach out to seniors and homebound individuals.
Continuing on this theme, Councilmember Susan Whitney (District 2) pointed out that July’s devastating storm underscored the importance of maintaining a current registry of city residents, especially those who might need special assistance. Whitney said that “it would be a great idea to have a registry of buildings with high volumes of citizens in need or homebound individuals.”
Councilmembers also raised concerns about how emergency preparedness relates to the city’s high rental population, largely due to students at the University of Maryland. Councilmember Stuart Adams (District 3) expressed concern about receiving less funding from the county because the area has fewer homeowners and more renters than other areas of equal population.
Wells told Stuart that his office analyzes College Park in the same way it assesses other municipalities with comparable rental populations. He then said that he agrees that further consideration should be taken when addressing situations in College Park, and that he plans to explore a more comprehensive approach to the city’s emergency management needs.
Councilmembers also focused on opportunities for community engagement around issues of emergency preparedness. Councilmember Llatetra Brown Esters (District 2) expressed interest in “bringing individuals to the table to prepare for emergencies.” She said that it is essential for city officials to partner with the university and a range of public agencies to address crises that impact the community as a whole.
Mayor Patrick Wojahn pointed to the long-delayed establishment of a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) in College Park; these teams are based on a model developed by the Los Angeles Fire Department in the mid-1980s and are promoted by FEMA. While CERTs are not equipped to single-handedly respond to a major emergency, they can respond to lesser emergencies and provide stability until governmental assistance is in place.
“Community emergency response teams can be very useful in helping protect the community when there are emergency situations,” Wojahn said, after the meeting.
Wells noted that it might be feasible to establish a CERT in College Park and encouraged interested residents to inform themselves about short-term emergency response training courses offered by the county. For more information on the county’s training programs, email PGCCert@co.pg.md.us. Wells also underscored that emergency preparedness information is available at Ready.Gov and Redcross.org.