In times of disaster, many jurisdictions will declare a state of emergency, often without fully realizing the potential of what that emergency declaration can do. Many jurisdictions might also NOT declare a state of emergency, similarly because they don’t realize the potential of what it can do. In the US, state laws provide for certain powers of governors and local officials, which include the ability to declare a state of emergency (or similar language). State laws typically provide for a formal procedure for the declaration, which generally include certain notifications to other government officials and the public. Issuing a state of emergency can be one of the most important things that elected officials can do to support response and recovery efforts. While declaring a state of emergency is itself important, it’s really what you do with it that counts.
Most state officials are fairly well versed in emergency declarations, but many local officials really don’t know what an emergency declaration is or does, much less how to actually issue one. Because of the differences in state laws, this is really on state emergency management agencies to promote to their local governments. Many do a good job of it, including it in training and orientation materials for new local emergency management officials, as well as guidance for local elected officials. While I strongly feel that emergency managers should be advising elected officials on state of emergency declarations, many jurisdictions obviously don’t have their own emergency manager. I’ve also seen many emergency managers simply not communicate the information with their local elected officials until they feel it’s necessary. Obviously this isn’t the way to go. Elected officials with this authority should be well aware of it, how it’s done, when it should be done, and how it’s done well ahead of any disaster – even if the EM wants to (and should) be advising when the time comes.
So what can the declaration of a state of emergency get you? First of all, it makes an important statement that there is a serious situation probable or at hand. Most state laws seem to allow for the situation to be from an incident or event, and arising from a natural hazard, technological hazard, or human action. The declaration provides a notice to the public, surrounding jurisdictions, and the state that there is a danger to the public and/or property. I’ve seen disaster declarations for a specific property, a neighborhood or other geographic area, or for entire jurisdictions; any of which can be valid depending on the situation at hand. Unfortunately, this is where I see a lot of emergency declarations stop. They simply aren’t utilized any further than this.
Some states require local emergency declarations to support a request for state assistance, while others do not require one to be in place. While state laws have some differences, one of the most significant doors that an emergency declaration opens is the ability for emergency issuance or suspension of local laws. These can, again depending upon specific state laws, allow for things such as:
- Establishing a curfew and/or limiting traffic or access to and within certain areas
- Order prolonged evacuation of buildings and areas
- Closing places of amusement or assembly
- Limiting or suspending the sale, use, or transportation of alcoholic beverages, firearms, explosives, or other hazardous materials
- Establishing emergency shelters or other facilities
- Suspension of local laws, ordinances, or regulations (in whole or in part) which may prevent, hinder, or delay disaster response or recovery actions.
Over the past nearly two years, we’ve seen emergency orders issued regarding limiting density in certain locations, the requirement of masks, requirement of vaccinations, etc. Unfortunately, the political divisiveness of the pandemic has caused emergency declarations and emergency orders to become political, with many state legislatures pushing to make changes to state laws to restrict the ability of governors and local elected officials in this regard. While checks and balances are important, we need to be very careful in how we may inadvertently hinder a response and life safety actions. These matters must be carefully reviewed with multiple perspectives and scenarios studied.
Declaring a state of emergency should be a consideration in your emergency plan. It’s an important tool for incident management, and just like most tools in higher level incident management, we don’t do it with enough frequency to remember how to do it. Ensure that emergency operations plans include information on declarations, including a job aid for issuing a state of emergency and associated emergency orders. As with all aspects of our plans, it should also be exercised. It’s a great item to include for discussion in a tabletop exercise and to go through the motions of in a functional exercise.
It’s also important to note that state laws may allow for various entities to declare a state of emergency. For example, in New York State, a county Sheriff can declare a ‘special emergency’. Doing so provides the Sheriff with specific authorities to support the management of an emergency. While I always appreciate having several avenues available to tackle a problem, I’m regularly concerned with duplication of effort, or, even worse, conflicting information. It certainly could occur that the emergency orders of a Sheriff’s declaration of a ‘special emergency’, the orders of a county executive, and those of local governments could conflict or not be consistent. This is why relationships and ongoing coordination are important.
What best practices have you seen for issuing a state of emergency and emergency orders?
© 2021 Tim Riecker, CEDP