Security Management interviews Carmen Merlo, director of the Portland Office of Emergency Management.
Carmen Merlo has served as director of the Portland Office of Emergency Management since 2007. She is responsible for planning, implementing, and improving emergency management plans, programs, and procedures to ensure a coordinated response to major emergencies or disruptions to continuity of operations in the city. She leads the activities of the Office of Emergency Management to maintain the city’s overall emergency management mitigation, response, and recovery strategy; coordinates bureau and city response and recovery efforts; promotes citywide and regional coordination of emergency response capabilities; and oversees the activation and expansion of the City’s Emergency Coordination Center. In addition, Merlo serves as the administrative agent for the federal Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI) grant program, which has brought more than $60 million to the Portland Metro area to better enhance the region’s mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery capabilities.
What are the responsibilities of your office?
We work directly under the mayor’s office. We do a lot of work behind the scenes before, during, and after a response to minimize the impact on the community. We have a very strong working relationship with the emergency managers from our core infrastructure bureaus, including our water bureau, environmental services—which handles wastewater—our information technologies, our police and fire, public works, and our 911 agency. We’re also responsible for ensuring the readiness of our Emergency Coordination Center, and in our case, we centralize the city’s leadership and provide decision-making support for elected officials. We’re not the tactical command-and-control for the on-scene response, but we do provide support to our first responders. And then, finally, we also serve as the administrative agency for UASI grants.
What assets and threats make your city and region unique?
The Portland urban area is made up of a five-county region and that includes the City of Portland as the hub, Multnomah County, which is where Portland resides, and then the surrounding counties of Clackamas, Washington, Columbia, and Clark County in Washington State. The threats we have here are pretty diverse. We are along the Cascadia Subduction Zone, which is a 600-mile fault that lies 75 miles off the Oregon coast. It stretches from Northern California to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, and it’s capable of producing a quake similar to that just experienced in Japan. We also have three crustal faults in the city.
In addition to the seismic issue, we also bear risks from landslides. In 1996, we had one of our biggest disasters, a major flooding event, and that produced well over 10,000 landslides in the state of Oregon. There’s also risk from severe weather and from wildland fires. We’ve got one of the world’s largest urban parks, Forest Park. It’s a 5,000-acre park that sits in the middle of our city, and it’s home to a lot of beauty, but it is also capable of producing a conflagration.
As far as our assets go, Portland is the hub for the Olympic Pipeline, which moves gasoline, diesel, natural gas, and jet fuel throughout the Pacific Northwest. We have 15 very unique and iconic bridges that cross the Willamette and Columbia rivers. Those bridges are historic, but they also carry utilities. They carry everything from electrical, gas, fiber, and potable water across them. And then, finally, our Bull Run Watershed, which is a pristine area near the Mount Hood National Forest, provides drinking water to about 850,000 people and businesses.
What is the region’s mechanism for planning and for administration of UASI funds?
We’re actually in the process now of migrating to a new governance model. The Portland urban area is organized primarily to respond regionally, but that’s because of some mandates through the urban area grants. We want to move to a more holistic approach that includes other organizations that have cropped up in response to federal mandates or in recognition of the need to do a better job coordinating. So we’re moving to a new regional disaster preparedness organization. It blends the grant funding arm with the preparedness/response arm, and we want to coordinate vertically and horizontally so that we’re working across disciplines better and ensuring that our disciplines are also coordinating with elected officials and executives.
What do you view as the greatest success in your office’s mission?
I think it’s been developing strong regional collaboration and developing regional capabilities. We truly are working together as a region, and we’ve done a lot of great work in developing an emergency water distribution plan, putting together an emergency public information plan, and on debris management. I can’t say enough about the strong working relationships that have been developed mostly due to the UASI grants, but even before that, we were working together as a region, and it’s just provided so many returns on our investments.
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.