THE MAGAZINE

Urban Area Perspective – Seattle

By Joseph Straw
Barb Graff has served as director of Seattle Office of Emergency Management since June of 2005. Her responsibilities include managing the multihazard interdepartmental emergency management program for the city and coordinating with other emergency response agencies and community groups. The program encompasses all phases of integrated emergency management including preparedness, mitigation, response, and recovery. She has managed the response to a number of presidentially declared disasters and has a depth of experience with full-scale and functional exercises. Prior to joining the City of Seattle, Graff worked for the City of Bellevue for 21 years; seven in the city manager’s office and 14 as emergency preparedness manager. In that capacity she led Bellevue’s emergency management program through a national pilot of the Emergency Management Accreditation Program (EMAP) process. She serves on the (EMAP) Commission, chairs the EMAP Review Committee, and also sits on the King County Advisory Committee on Emergency Management and the Regional Homeland Security Council. A member of the Washington State Emergency Management Association and the International Association of Emergency Managers, Graff co-chairs the Washington Information Network 2-1-1 information referral system’s Board of Directors. A native of the Puget Sound region, she holds a Bachelor of Science degree in sociology from the University of Washington. In 1992, Graff received the “Educator of the Year" award from the Washington State Public Educators Association and in 2000 she received a “Best of Bellevue” award from the Advance Bellevue community-wide leadership group for her exemplary work in community preparedness.
 

What are the responsibilities of your office?

The Seattle Office of Emergency Management is organizationally housed within the Seattle Police Department. I, as the director, am a direct report to the police chief, but I also meet on a regular monthly basis directly with the mayor as well as the council president. Although the office is housed within the Police Department we are responsible for leading the citywide program of emergency preparedness, mitigation, response and recovery.

 

What assets and threats make your region unique?

I guess the first asset would be the beauty of the part of the country we live in. We like to say that we live in the “right” Washington. You’re no more than 45 minutes away from downhill skiing, deep-sea fishing, kayaking, hiking. There are a lot of people who gravitate to the Northwest because of the natural environment, and there’s a lot of people like me who grow up here and never go away.

 
Those same assets—the beauty of the region—are complemented by some threats. We are in close proximity to the Canadian border, so we have international affairs to deal with. We live surrounded by water. We have a very, very healthy port here, and because we’ve got so much water on one side of Seattle and a mountain range on the other, we don’t have a particularly redundant transportation system.
 

Is the proximity of Mount Rainier a concern? What unique measures does your region take to prepare for the risks it poses?

Seattle, much like many communities across the nation has done a formal assessment called a hazard identification and vulnerability analysis, and in our particular analysis of what could happen in our area, we’ve come up with 18 different natural and manmade hazards that we prepare for. In Seattle itself, the things that top that list—and we use a formula to figure out the potential impacts of various threats—but what tops our list in Seattle tends to be earthquakes, not so much because of their frequency but because of their complexity and impact, followed by winter storms, because of their frequency, and then close to that are acts of terrorism based on the risk and vulnerability, as well as on past actions.

Volcanic hazards are on that hazard identification and vulnerability list, but quite frankly for the city of Seattle, they’re at the bottom. Now if you talked to my colleague to the south from the Pierce County Emergency Agency—we’re in King County——you’ll find volcanic hazards up toward the top, because they’re so close to Mount Rainier and frankly Mount St. Helens and others. So for them an outdoor warning system is appropriate to try to give people as much notice as possible. We did in Washington State deal with one of the world’s largest volcanic eruptions in 1980 with Mount St. Helens. Given the prevailing jet stream—the wind patterns—it blew a tremendous amount of ash eastward. So we in Seattle weren’t impacted, although we could see how people were impacted to our south.
 
Frankly the thing highest on our hazard list is earthquakes because they tend to come with no warning. The way I like to put it is that I’m warning everyone that “today” there’s going to be one; I just can’t tell you the day. So Pierce County to our south does have warning systems for volcanic hazards. What we do here in Seattle is we practice for two things: One, if for any reason the prevailing winds were abnormal the day that Mount Rainier were to blow, we do practice in our strategic work groups and our disaster management committees for how we would deal with short notice of ash fall heading our direction. And of course since we have statewide practice with that we’ve had good lessons to learn. Mostly though, we practice for how we would help our neighbors out. So if Pierce County needed to evacuate and we had a bunch of their population into our areas how could we be of assistance to them.
 

How does the Seattle region coordinate preparedness, planning, and grant allocation?

 For general emergency preparedness Washington is a home-rule state, which means that local communities are expected to develop their own emergency plans, or band together through mutual aid or interlocal agreements to do so jointly. Once those local plans are in place, local communities are supported by the counties. They work in partnership with the public, and then all of that effort is then supported by the state, and then eventually supported by federal assets.

As far as the federal Urban Area Security Initiative grant program, our region is made up of three counties: Snohomish, King, and Pierce counties, as well as the two major cities in those counties, which are Seattle and Bellevue. That three-county, two-city arrangement accounts for practically 60 percent of Washington’s population. The way it’s governed is through an interdisciplinary Urban Area Working Group, and they’re the folks tasked with doing capability assessments, threat analysis, and project development, and all of their work is governed by a five-member urban area core team composed of a high-ranking individual from each of the three counties and the two cities.
 

Does your office engage private-sector partners? If so, how?

We’ve got some great examples and we’re pretty proud of them actually. There’s an organization called the Pacific Northwest Economic Region (PNWER), which represents five states, plus three Canadian provinces and two Canadian territories. It’s an organization formed to help build awareness and planning for critical infrastructure interdependencies. And they do that through a series of forums and workshops and annual exercises. And these are tremendously successful. They ordinarily draw 700 participants in those forums and workshops and exercises, and work through interdependency issues.

I remember back in 1999 when we were all preparing for the Y2K change, and we were all trying to figure out what was going to happen, and a lot of emergency management leaders went to telecommunications providers and said, “You’re vital to us. We need you to stay up. How can you guarantee us you can.” And they said, “Oh, don’t worry, we’ve got that solved. As long as you can guarantee that there’s power, telecommunications is there for you.” Well, we went to the power industry and they said, “Oh, don’t worry, as long as we’ve got telecommunications, we’re there for you.” So it’s those kinds of issues that PNWER exposes and plans for and deals with.
 
Secondly, as far as working with the private sector, there is a critical infrastructure group that is facilitated as a part of our King County-wide—Seattle’s just one member of that—but King County-wide Emergency Advisory Committee, which also serves as our Homeland Security Council in the region.
 
Third, there is an organization that’s relatively young called the WashingtonFIRST coalition, which is a federally-backed initiative, to get the financial institutions and risk management groups in large metropolitan areas to form a more collaborative working relationship, and ours is a very, very healthy one. We built it on the success of similar programs in both Chicago and San Francisco.
 
Then finally we just have ongoing relationships in our training, our planning, and our exercises with our local chambers of commerce, the Building Owners and Managers Association and other business groups.
 

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