Emergence Alumna Making a Difference: Reimagining Coconino County’s Emergency Management Infrastructure: A Vision for Resilience

Driven by a passion for enhancing community resilience and safeguarding the lives of residents, Coconino County Emergency Management’s Kelsey Nielsen aimed to take on an initiative that addressed critical gaps in her county’s preparedness and response capabilities.

Emergence Alumna Kelsey Nielsen

The success of her initiative can be attributed to her participation in the Emergence Program, Nielsen said. Her transformative experience equipped her with the knowledge and skills needed to navigate complex challenges effectively, such as this one. Nielsen said the program’s emphasis on critical thinking and evidence-based research has empowered her to initiate positive and lasting changes within her agency and the broader Coconino County community.

Coconino County, nestled in the heart of Northern Arizona and home to the iconic Grand Canyon, boasts a landscape as diverse as its challenges. From the towering pines of its national forests to the arid desert plains, this expansive county experiences a wide array of natural disasters, ranging from wildfires to heavy snowstorms and everything in between.

According to Nielsen, the county’s disaster landscape has undergone significant shifts, marked by an increase in the frequency and severity of weather-related events. The year 2022, in particular, served as a stark reminder of the region’s vulnerability, with Coconino County’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) being activated for three major wildfires in quick succession, followed by over 45 post-wildfire flooding incidents, all within the same season.

At the heart of Nielsen’s initiative lies the need for a dedicated and permanent EOC, which would be fully equipped to handle the county’s evolving disaster landscape. Currently, the lack of a permanent EOC and insufficient office space for the county’s emergency management team poses significant challenges to effective incident response. The goal of the initiative, she said, was to  “to demonstrate to county leadership that by investing in a dedicated and permanent EOC, the county would really be investing in increased capabilities for life safety, community resilience, and recovery.”

“The traditional approach of functioning as a small-town emergency management entity is no longer sustainable for us. Our rapid population growth and the rising frequency of complex disasters and special events highlights the need to shift away from the ‘small town’ mindset and realize that we now face ‘big city’ problems.”

However, Nielsen’s vision extends beyond mere physical infrastructure; it encompasses a holistic approach to bolstering the county’s emergency management capabilities.

“The traditional approach of functioning as a small-town emergency management entity is no longer sustainable for us. Our rapid population growth and the rising frequency of complex disasters and special events highlights the need to shift away from the ‘small town’ mindset and realize that we now face ‘big city’ problems.”

– Kelsey Nielsen

Nielsen presented her comprehensive plan to key stakeholders, including county leadership, highlighting the benefits of a dedicated EOC and the importance of including space for strategic partners in the EOC. Central to her proposal was the concept of co-locating with critical partners, such as the National Weather Service (NWS), to enhance collaboration and coordination during emergencies. “NWS is a crucial partner available 24/7, and their contributions are key in establishing and maintaining shared situational awareness of weather information, spanning pre, during, and post-events,” she said.

The response from Coconino County leadership was overwhelmingly positive, signaling a commitment to considering and implementing Nielsen’s proposed space solutions. Recognizing the urgency of the matter, the county has since prioritized finding a resolution to the infrastructure challenges faced by the emergency management team.

Since presenting her initiative, Nielsen has made significant strides in implementing key aspects of her vision. The integration of a meteorologist from the NWS Flagstaff office into the county’s emergency management office on a rotating schedule has already proven invaluable during recent weather events. Their collaborative partnership has facilitated real-time decision making and enhanced the county’s ability to respond to weather-related emergencies effectively. Nielsen said that this concept is a national initiative for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the local Flagstaff NWS has received indications from their higher-ups that this is a direction NWS intends to pursue.

“Looking ahead, the trajectory for the advancement of emergency management should involve consolidating these two entities in a shared location, establishing an emergency management ‘hub.’”

Nielsen envisions a future where additional local emergency management partners seamlessly integrate into this emergency management hub. Conversations with the local police department, university, and city emergency management department have revealed their own interests in co-locating with Coconino County Emergency Management, further enhancing collaborative efforts in preparedness and response. This arrangement would be mutually beneficial for all partners and increase emergency management capabilities countywide.

Nielsen stressed that what makes the Emergence program and education through CHDS both “unique and invaluable” is the impressive blend of professional homeland security practitioners who contribute to delivering the curriculum, alongside the formation of strong bonds and relationships among the students in her cohort.

Looking ahead, Nielsen plans to continue her educational journey with the CHDS Master’s Program, furthering her commitment to excellence in emergency management and homeland security.

INQUIRIES: Heather Hollingsworth Issvoran, Communications and Recruitment | hissvora@nps.edu, 831-402-4672 (PST)

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