A team from the Federal Emergency Management Agency will be in town next week to begin preparing for a massive, five-day disaster exercise that will take dozens of local officials to Maryland.
The Douglas County Commission on Monday approved an agreement to participate in the Integrated Emergency Management Course, to be held Dec. 6-10 in Emmitsburg, Md. The Lawrence City Commission is expected to give similar approval tonight.
"Roles and responsibilities will be clarified, relationships will be clarified," said Paula Phillips, director of Douglas County Emergency Management. "It gives people the chance to interact in a highly stressful situation without it being real, and without the distractions of your daily job."
Phillips said as many as 65 local officials -- drawn from the city and county commissions, Kansas University, the school district, Lawrence Memorial Hospital and local emergency-response agencies -- would participate in the exercise.
FEMA is picking up the entire tab, including the cost of local officials' travel to Maryland. Phillips said FEMA officials would be in town next week to assess local resources -- personnel and equipment -- available in an emergency, and to figure out what hazards are most likely to trigger a local crisis.
Local officials haven't been told what disaster scenario they'll face during the training exercise.
"They'll do a hazard analysis to see what our greatest hazards are," Phillips said. "We have some KU people participating, so it might involve KU. They don't tell us the scenario; we'll find out when we get there. It'll be as close to real as we can get in a simulation."
Douglas County Commissioner Charles Jones said Monday he would try to attend the exercise. Mayor Mike Rundle said he might attend with City Commissioner Boog Highberger.
"It's where the one-year mayor position doesn't give you a lot of guidance," Rundle said, referring to the city's short mayoral terms. "If you knew when you were going to have your next disaster ..."
Aside from preparing for an emergency, Rundle said the exercise would be useful in giving elected officials a closer look at how emergency workers did their jobs.
"When we're asked for funding, things will make a lot more sense," he said.
The sheer number of officials who will leave town raises one question: Who's around to handle a crisis if a disaster happens while they're away?
"There will still be people here who can make decisions," Phillips said. "If we need to come back, we'll come back."
The City Commission meets at 6:35 p.m. in City Hall, Sixth and Massachusetts streets.