Back to the Mar-Apr 2022 issue

Preparing Your City for an Emergency

By Christina Bensoncity buildings

Tornadoes, floods, and fires. Those are among the emergencies that cities fear. And now you can add pandemics to that list. While the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have been different for each city, they have highlighted the need for every city to maintain and review emergency preparedness plans.

Setting emergency procedures in motion

When an emergency happens, the city must decide whether to declare an emergency. Declaring an emergency allows a city to use emergency contracts and take various steps to respond to the emergency (see Minnesota Statutes, section 12.37).

It also activates the role of the emergency management director, which is often carried out by the city administrator or public safety director. Then the emergency management director can use city personnel, services, equipment, supplies, and facilities to respond to the emergency. Declaring an emergency is also often necessary to receive support from the state and federal government.

Since emergencies generally require quick action, the mayor has the authority to declare an emergency to invoke the city’s emergency management or local disaster plan (see Minnesota Statutes, section 12.29, subdivision 2). To continue exercising emergency powers, the council must act within three days to extend the emergency by resolution. An emergency meeting may be necessary. Learn more about this at www.lmc.org/meetings.

Communicating with key audiences

Good communication is critical during an emergency. The first step is to identify a city spokesperson and make sure all city staff know who that is. This is often the city administrator, mayor, a council member, the police chief, or communications director.

Next, identify the intended audiences. Generally, key audiences include residents, employees, and businesses in the city. The city also needs to develop key messages about the crisis: the who, what, where, when, and why. Make sure to involve your city attorney when relevant information may be considered private or confidential data.

The city also needs to select the communication channels it will use. Perhaps the emergency text alert system is appropriate in the event of a tornado. Radio and social media may be appropriate for sharing details of the event and who to contact with questions.

In most cases, your city will use a variety of communication vehicles, including the website, social media, email, and texts. You should create a list of your city’s communication options before an emergency strikes. Learn more about crisis communications at www.lmc.org/crisis-comm.

Preparing staff

The city should train staff on their responsibilities under the emergency management plan before an emergency happens. And during an emergency, city staff should maintain communication. This communication should include informing employees of where to report for work.

How employees may be helpful to city operations, outside their normal job duties, is also a consideration. For example, an accounting clerk might assist the emergency manager in making phone calls and documenting actions the city has taken. The city might consider hosting mock emergencies to help staff think through how the city’s plan works in practice.

Contracting for services

Emergencies create needs your city may not be able to handle on its own. Are you prepared to move several hundred downed trees on a main road? What about dealing with standing water in a residential district?

Having a good understanding of your city’s ability to contract during an emergency will be helpful to a fast response. Make sure you have a list of local contractors to help in a variety of situations.

Under the state Emergency Management Act, cities may contract without using the normal competitive bidding procedures during an emergency. Learn more about this at www.lmc.org/bidding.

Taking time to reflect

After you’ve gone through an emergency, it’s important to take time to reflect on the experience. Make sure to update your emergency plan to reflect what you have learned. Review what went well and what didn’t with staff, residents, and others.

Communicating these reflections may also help mark the resolution of a crisis. Perhaps the mayor could write a letter to the editor discussing lessons learned and thanking those who played a role in managing the emergency.

Finally, managing an emergency can have an impact on both physical and mental health. It is important to check in with yourself and others to make sure these needs are addressed.

Christina Benson is a research attorney with the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: cbenson@lmc.org or (651) 281-1246.