Emergency Management team ready when disaster strikes

This article appeared in the October 2020 edition of the Chickasaw Times

Natural and man-made disasters come in many forms. Tornadoes, floods, fires, chemical spills, heat waves, ice storms and blizzards impact communities across the U.S., Oklahoma and the Chickasaw Nation. In response, the Chickasaw Nation has developed programs to help Chickasaws, and all Oklahomans.

Planning before a disaster occurs is essential to public safety. The tribe in 2017 established Chickasaw Nation Emergency Management. The Emergency Management team coordinates with other disaster relief and public safety entities, both within and outside the Chickasaw Nation.

“We author standardized action plans for emergency responses before they happen, allowing us the ability to best utilize the resources of the Chickasaw Nation,” Emergency Management director of operations Steve Cash said. “This creates a culture of preparedness and provides people an opportunity to rely on that training at a moment’s notice. We are integrated with other departments and their actions within the Chickasaw Nation.”

Organizing Resources

Emergency Management organizes resources and responsibilities for humanitarian aspects of emergencies. The group focuses on preparedness, response, mitigation and recovery to reduce the harmful effects of disasters and other public hazards. The Emergency Management team consists of members from a variety of disciplines, including law enforcement, fire service, military, insurance, human resources, industrial safety and self-governance. 

“These various backgrounds provide the team with many different perspectives that ultimately can be relied upon for enhanced services,” Mr. Cash said.

The group has most recently activated an emergency operations center during the COVID-19 pandemic. Emergency Management has collaborated with Chickasaw Nation Geospatial Information (GSI), along with community services, to provide reopening plans for over 200 Chickasaw Nation facilities. Support for the Chickasaw Nation Department of Health and various other tribal departments is ongoing.

Cooperative Action

Chickasaw Nation Emergency Management works with Oklahoma Emergency Management, Oklahoma State Department of Health, Federal Emergency Management Agency and Inter-Tribal Emergency Management Coalition to research various resources and best practices for response and mitigation during the pandemic. The tribal team continues to provide support to various community allies. Most recently, it worked together with local emergency managers in distributing personal protective equipment (PPE) to over 60 public schools in a nine-county area.

First responders are considered the “front line” of natural disasters. Chickasaw Nation Lighthorse Police officers are often the first to help during disasters. When severe storms, tornadoes, flooding or other disasters hit, the Lighthorse Police Department is there to help. Lighthorse officers are called upon to assist disaster victims within the Chickasaw Nation boundaries and beyond. Officers are cross-deputized with other law enforcement agencies and service communities outside the Chickasaw Nation when needed.

Chickasaw Nation GSI works behind the scenes, often before disasters strike. As mapmakers, GSI uses state-of-the-art technology to track storms or disasters as they happen in real time and helps coordinate disaster relief after the fact. The Chickasaw Nation emergency response teams utilize GSI maps to locate affected property and help with cleanup efforts.

“We work with GSI both before and after events,” Mr. Cash said. “I have requested maps from GSI of areas we may be performing our search and rescue efforts. During planning stages of the Chickasaw Nation Annual Meeting and Festival, GSI created maps that the public safety teams rely on to provide services. They showed us the egress routes of the capitol area and where the most populated areas were so we could set up ambulances and other first responders where needed.”

‘Be Prepared’

Preparation is paramount in saving lives. The Chickasaw Nation Storm Shelter Program was created in 2003 to provide shelters to Chickasaw families. The program is available to Chickasaw citizens inside and outside of Chickasaw Nation boundaries.

During disasters, information is important to the people affected. In weather emergencies, KCNP-Chickasaw Community Radio can be heard in the Ada area on 89.5 FM, in the Dickson/Ardmore areas on 89.3 FM, in the Tishomingo area on 97.3 FM, in the Wynnewood/Pauls Valley areas on 104.5 FM and worldwide at KCNP.org. In the event of disasters, the station continually updates information from emergency managers, law enforcement agencies and the National Weather Service.

“We work hand in hand with KCNP,” Mr. Cash said. “During events we are in continual contact with the radio station. We want the public to be educated on what is actually happening and where it is taking place. After events, we want the public to know what areas to avoid. KCNP is a great line of communication to the public.”

AmeriCorps program helps citizens prepare for potential disasters

The Chickasaw Nation has established an AmeriCorps program to provide lifesaving disaster preparedness training to students, elders, veterans and families inside the Chickasaw Nation service area.

“The overall goal of this program is to teach citizens of all ages how to be better prepared for disasters and emergencies,” Chickasaw Nation AmeriCorps program coordinator Rebecca Rhynes said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recommends being proactive regarding hazard mitigation. These are efforts to preemptively reduce loss of life and property by lessening the impact of disasters. Analyzing, reducing and insuring against risks are key elements.

Effective mitigation requires an understanding of local risks and an investment in long-term community well-being.

To address these issues, the Chickasaw Nation and the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), a federal agency, cooperated to form the Chickasaw Nation AmeriCorps Program.

Both organizations, Ms. Rhynes said, focus on people and service.

CNCS’ mission is to improve lives, strengthen communities and foster civic engagement through service and volunteering. The Chickasaw Nation’s fundamental mission is to enhance the overall quality of life of the Chickasaw people. Chickasaw Nation AmeriCorps members work directly with different Chickasaw Nation divisions to assist in the development and implementation of hazard mitigation plans. With training and drills, these workers help to ensure employees are prepared.

In local communities, AmeriCorps members assist with search and rescue missions, which include learning to handle a search dog and cutting down trees and limbs for elders after ice storms or tornadoes, in addition to other hands-on assistance.

Members deliver educational presentations at certain locations, including senior centers, veterans’ lodges, leadership meetings, and service club gatherings.

More than 75,000 Americans across the country participate in AmeriCorps each year. Service positions for halftime members are available through the Chickasaw Nation AmeriCorps program. Current available positions are based out of Ada and Ardmore.

The Chickasaw Nation’s jurisdictional boundaries – within which the Chickasaw Nation AmeriCorps Program will operate – include 7,648 square miles of south-central Oklahoma and encompasses all or parts of 13 Oklahoma counties. Those counties are: Grady, McClain, Garvin, Pontotoc, Stephens, Carter, Murray, Johnston, Jefferson, Love, Marshall, Bryan and Coal counties.

The program hopes to tap into the ingenuity and “can-do spirit” of Oklahomans to address community safety challenges.