Interview with Ronald C. Osborne, director of the South Carolina Emergency Management Division
Ronald C. Osborne is director of the South Carolina Emergency Management Division (SCEMD) within the state’s Office of the Adjutant General. A state native, Osborne served in the Air Force from 1969 to 1990, retiring with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Osborne joined the SCEMD in 1992 as a nuclear plans, operations, and training specialist. In 1993, he was promoted to chief of operations, and later to chief of the Response and Recovery Section. Osborne holds a Bachelor of Science degree from the College of Charleston, a master’s degree from East Texas State University, and he is a graduate of the Air War College. (His remarks have been edited to accommodate space limitations. Read the full interview online.)
Q. What are your agency’s responsibilities within the state?
A. We’re focused on response to all natural and man-made hazards. The state Law Enforcement Division handles terrorism prevention, but we’re still responsible for responding to, and taking care of, the citizens in any type of disaster or threatened disaster. Our primary responsibilities really, day to day, are preparedness, a lot of training, a lot of exercises, and a lot of planning to enhance our capabilities with each of the specific hazards that our state faces. And the overall goal, obviously, is to protect citizens’ lives, as well as minimize the impacts of disaster on their property and on the economy of the state.
Q. What threats and assets are your top concerns?
A. Our state basically faces every natural hazard except volcanoes. We had the East Coast’s second-largest recorded earthquake in 1886 near Charleston, something people don’t realize. We have a lot of dams, and if the Lake Murray Dam near Columbia should fail, it could potentially threaten around 100,000 people. We have five nuclear facilities, four in our state and one right across the border, and we do a good bit of planning and exercising and training around that.
Obviously, there’s the hurricane threat. We used to start preparing a few months before the season, but it’s become complex enough that it’s evolved into a year-round planning, training, and exercise event.
Q. How has hurricane preparedness grown?
A. Some of the things that we are trying to enhance after Katrina include transportation for individuals that do not have their own means, and we’ve also started to address the special needs population more than we had in the past. We’ve also purchased a warehouse centrally located in our state, so we can dispatch commodities fairly rapidly in an emergency.
Q. How has your professional background helped you on the job?
A. I was in the Air Force for a little over 20 years. The first ten I was an aviator, the last ten I was primarily in plans and operations. I worked in NATO for three or four years to develop operational centers much like the ones we have here, and then I also worked in the Pacific developing operational centers, operational plans, taking orders, things very similar to what we use here during a disaster. And working at SCEMD for eight or nine years before I became the director gave me background from the roots up, I guess.
Q. What has surprised you on the job?
A. Probably citizen complacency, and a lack of awareness. When you go out and you talk to the public, they’re not aware of the threats. You give a little presentation and ask, by show of hands, how many people in the room have a family disaster kit. It’s a pretty small number. You would really think that people who face those types of disasters, especially as many as our state has, would be a little more prepared.
Q. How is the state’s relationship with its federal partners?
A. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has done a very good job coordinating and providing disaster support. Even if we have just the threat of a disaster we get a lot of support from them. I think that when FEMA went under the Department of Homeland Security, there were some concerns about FEMA losing manpower and funding. That obviously hurt them a little bit, because they lost experience at the same time. That’s been addressed to some degree by Washington, but we’ve not seen that experience level come back to full strength. So if anything, I think, having more emergency management type people working in those jobs is very important.
Q. How does the division’s budget break down?
A. We get funds from a lot of places, but probably 40 percent—and these are kind of rough numbers—is from the state budget. Forty percent is probably federal funds, and we receive added funding from the state’s nuclear plant operators.
Q. What would you do with added resources?
A. We would look at trying to provide more support to our county and municipal governments by enhancing our training abilities and providing more local support. Every disaster starts at the lowest level, and that’s the level that needs to be trained and prepared to do their mission. Enhanced citizen awareness would be another area we’d look at, to try to get out and get more people involved, get more people to develop those family plans, and to take care of themselves several days after a disaster to where the government is not expected to support them a minute after a disaster happens.
Q. Has the division engaged the private sector at all? If so, how?
A. That’s one of the things that we’re beginning to stress more: working with the larger corporations, the larger stores, to develop some coordinated plans and assisted support. We know that the private sector understands logistics. They do it every day, trying to get goods from one place to another quickly. We’ve worked with them to develop an emergency support function whereby they assist us in preparing, responding to, and then in recovering from a disaster. We’re really trying to work through trade associations to let them pick the companies, rather than have us go in and pick one or two.
Q. Does the state benefit from drills or exercises?
A. We have about one exercise a month. Every time we have an exercise or a drill, we gain some insight into ways of doing business better. And, in some cases, there are deficiencies that we see over and over again when we go to different localities. We consolidate those common threads in our after-action reports, then focus our training.
We’re planning an exercise for June dealing with hurricanes, where we’ll bring in all the state personnel and volunteer organizations to work on our logistics plan for distributing water to several counties. Also, our Department of Public Safety and Department of Transportation will simulate reversing the eastbound lanes of Interstate 26 out of Charleston.
Q. What are your goals for the coming year?
A. One of the immediate goals we’re looking at for the hurricane season is enhancing gas distribution capability along our evacuation routes. We’re looking at our warehouse logistics plans, working with the locals to develop their plans and their points of distribution, and identifying the personnel to support those.
The issue of personnel in support of logistic distribution points is somewhat of a concern for us. If we have to do a lot of distribution points, then we’re definitely going to need some outside support. And we use the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, and we do a lot of training with that and work with that. We’ve provided a lot of personnel over the years to other states, and we’d expect our neighboring states to support us when we look for assistance as well.
We’ll also continue to look at transportation of evacuees and their housing. We accepted evacuees during Katrina, and that gave us some good lessons learned on finding housing, which is probably the long pole in the tent for us and many other states in a catastrophe. We’ve got a good many shelters identified, but that’s a short-term solution. We’re looking at the hotel industry and our federal partners to help us find and identify longer-term housing. It’s a complex problem.