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Welch Launches National FEMA Campaign

LAFD Captain Alicia Welch (MA Alum and Current Fellow) and Scott Kelberg (Director, Office of Preparedness Integration and Coordination, Protection and National Preparedness) worked closely to launch a national program that will benefit first responders and their families.
Press Release

Related Information

For more information visit www.ready.gov

Welch's Master's Thesis Terrorism Awareness and Education as a Prevention Strategy for First Responders [pdf]

A Los Angeles Fire Captain for just eight months, Alicia Welch sat in her fire station watching the events of 9/11 unfold.

Recognizing that this unexpected event dramatically reshaped the role of the fire service in preparing for, responding to and recovering from the unthinkable, Welch had to confront the realities of how she would respond and what the Los Angeles Fire Department could do to be better prepared.

Welch, a 19-year veteran with LAFD, went on to ponder these questions while earning a master’s degree at the Naval Postgraduate School Center for Homeland Defense and Security and, subsequently, as a CHDS Fellow at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Since Sept. 11, first responders have received the latest technology and equipment as well as participated in training and exercises to plan for and practice how they will respond in a future incident, but Welch realized that a critical component of individual and family preparedness was missing.

"All of the equipment, training, and exercises contribute to a successful response, if the employees show up ready and able to work, but what if their families’ are impacted by the disaster?" Welch said. "Many organizations have not addressed this issue."

Welch set out to address this critical gap by developing a preparedness program for the Los Angeles Fire Department.

FEMA is backing this pilot, authored by Welch, to improve first responder family emergency preparedness so that professional responders are physically and mentally capable of coming to work and focusing on the job following a large-scale disaster.

"It just kind of occurred to me that we never took into consideration the work force," Welch said. "What if we write all these emergency plans and the work force doesn’t show up during a catastrophe? Then the plan won’t work."

Welch and FEMA have undertaken a multi-layered pilot program in the city of Los Angeles to bolster workplace and household readiness for emergency responders. The first phase focuses on the individual emergency responders by encouraging them to devise a home preparedness plan with their families. The second phase is targeted to the emergency response agencies and pre-planning to feed and shelter employees during long-term disaster operations.

A high priority for FEMA is to encourage preparedness and resilience among citizens. However, research shows that people working in the emergency-response profession have been hindered in carrying out their duties in the face of large-scale disaster. During 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, some 5 percent of the New Orleans Police Department’s forces were stranded at home, according to a U.S. Senate report.

First responders and firefighters in Southern California are well-schooled in preparedness for the seasonal wildland fire or occasional earthquake at home, but the key is to get them talking with their family members to ensure that their families understand and are prepared for the large-scale event.

"I feel the biggest challenge in workforce preparedness is educating employees about the real value in being prepared; for our employees to understand and grasp the concept that the type of event we are preparing for is not something we have ever experienced in the past" said LAFD Assistant Chief Patrick Butler. "The magnitude, scope, duration and, most importantly, the novelty of such a large-scale disaster will catch many of us off guard if we do not prepare ourselves and our families first."

A recent publication by CHDS alumni Mark Landahl of the Frederick County (Md.) Sheriff’s Department and Cynthia Cox, Assistant Professor at the University of Maryland University College, showed that responder-family preparedness has not been given adequate attention in the overall scheme of disaster planning.

Surveying CHDS students with military, emergency management, law enforcement and fire service backgrounds, their findings concluded that 97 percent of the respondents agreed employee and family preparedness was an essential element to organizational resilience during a large-scale catastrophe. Only 29 percent of the participants reported that their organizations had written plans to support employees and families during a disaster.

"Basically, a large percentage of those surveyed said, ‘if my family is in danger,’" Welch said. "We asked first responders what would help. The overwhelming response has been to have a departmental plan that provides shelter and care to families, if needed, and addresses basic human needs."

The Los Angeles Fire Department launched its responder preparedness effort earlier this year by distributing preparedness information packets to its 4,000 sworn and civilian staff members. The literature included information on understanding the hazards that affect the local community, crafting a family emergency plan, and building an emergency supply kit. The materials also discuss the importance of designating an out-of-state contact, identifying a meeting location both near the home and outside of one’s neighborhood, and knowing evacuation routes and shelter locations.

"It’s a tool that walks them through how to go through the steps with their family," Welch said.

The next step is agency-level planning for feeding and sheltering the workforce should fire stations be lost or inaccessible during catastrophic events. The LAFD is currently assessing 12 locations that could be potential shelter locations. LAFD is also investigating the best way to provide meals during those times. Once the assessment phase is concluded, the department will conduct training and exercises to ensure that the plans are feasible.

The LAFD hopes to pass along the preparedness message to all first responders and citizens of Greater Los Angeles.

"We want the citizens to become engaged in preparedness activities, so that during a disaster, the first responders can focus on the greatest needs rather than non-life threatening calls," Welch said.

Ultimately, Welch and FEMA will package the pilot materials into a user-friendly template that will be available and applicable to municipalities around the country. Welch plans to attend conferences of professional organizations to tout the pilot program, named Ready Responder.

"Hopefully, by the end of the year, FEMA will have a product they can push out to anybody who wants it," Welch said.

Welch is working at FEMA as a CHDS fellow, one of three alumni of the Center working as fellows in 2010. These fellowships are awarded annually on a competitive basis and are aimed at enabling local and state professionals to work at the federal level.

"The Fellows program allows state and local officials to bring their expertise and collaborate with DHS officials for a year," CHDS Director Glen Woodbury said. "Advancing and implementing innovative projects like this is exactly how CHDS provides return on investment for DHS."