Urban Area Perspective - Portland

By Joseph Straw
What is the greatest challenge in your mission?
It is creating bench depth. I think not just my office, but a lot of our partner agencies just don’t have the luxury of multiple people filling certain roles, so what happens is people create their little silos of excellence, if you will.
How would you characterize your office’s relationship with its federal partners? What, if anything, would you change?
I think we’ve got a strong relationship with our federal partners. The one thing that I would like to see changed is grant administration. There’s a heavy reliance on the authorized equipment list, focusing mostly on fire and police. We don’t see a lot of leeway in the kinds of equipment that can be used to support other public safety partners.
Does your office engage the private sector in its mission? If so, how?
Absolutely. I think one of the projects that we’re most proud of is our Local Energy Assurance Plan. It’s a plan that is funded through an American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grant, and this is basically a plan that will provide a framework to enhance our energy resiliency. We’ve been working with businesses and our private sector partners to better understand our energy infrastructure, the energy profile, what our system interdependencies are, and then develop plans for minimizing the impacts of a disruption to the energy supply. It requires understanding how much energy we use on a day-to-day basis, and then what would be needed in an emergency, assessing the resilience of the system so, for example, if you’re a hospital, what kind of capacity do you have in your emergency power supply? How do you get your fuel supply to you? We’re working to better understand system interdependencies and to figure out ways that we could harden those facilities. Potential solutions include installation of backup generators or entering into memorandums of understanding with fuel suppliers so that there’s priority of service should there be a disruption. And we have to make sure people understand roles and responsibilities if we have a disruption to the energy supply.
Has your office learned any significant lessons from recent responses or exercises?
I think probably one of the biggest lessons learned is that decisions can’t always wait until you have the best information, and sometimes a decision just has to be made with the best information you have at the time.

Part of that is the necessity of an emergency coordination center. During TOPOFF, which was a regional exercise we did about four years ago now, the city lacked a facility to serve as our Emergency Coordination Center, and we are now in the process of designing and building a state-of-the art facility that uses Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design strategies to enhance the standalone capability of the building: everything from solar panels to run our mechanical systems to maximizing use of day-lighting to minimizing reliance on the energy grid, and using green roofs to help minimize storm-water runoff.

But more importantly, and especially after seeing the damage to the buildings in Chile and Japan, buildings that are still standing aren’t necessarily still operational. Things like HVAC and lighting systems are damaged. In our new building, we are hardening the systems and taking it a step further. We’re mounting our computers and phones and printers to a rail system, so that if there’s ground shaking, our computers are not lying broken on the ground and inoperable.

What are your office’s major goals going forward?
Our biggest goal is to ensure better integration of emergency management into the work of our other city bureaus. We don’t necessarily want to teach other people about emergency management, but we want to show them how the things that they’re already doing can be used to minimize the impact of a disaster. For example, Portland has a reputation for being a very green city. Well, we want to show people that the things that they’re already doing, like riding a bike and growing a garden, how those things, while they may be sustainable practices, also help resilience. So it’s not about trying to teach them our lingo, it’s about trying to see how we can fit ourselves into the work that they’re already doing.



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