Brian Geraci has worked in emergency services for more than 25 years. He’s dealt with fires, hurricanes, hazardous material spills and terrorist attacks. But when he teaches emergency preparedness, he focuses on far more likely — and less dramatic — scenarios: power outages, winter storms and water shortages.
“It isn’t going to be a magnitude event that comes to Montgomery County. Typically it’s going to be a weather event for us,” said Geraci, Battalion Chief for the Montgomery County Homeland Security Department. “You really need to plan for all hazards. Don’t just think about terrorism.”
The county Homeland Security Department is one of 10 groups co-sponsoring a free community Emergency Preparedness Day at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Potomac May 13.
The event will feature displays and classes taught by sponsoring organizations including the church, the American Red Cross, the county Department of Health and Human Services, the Montgomery County Police and county Fire and Rescue Service, and local utility companies.
GERACI’S MESSAGE is simple: “The main thing is you want to have a plan. You’ve got to have a plan in place with your family.”
A good plan includes a way for parents and children to get in touch even when local phone lines are tied up. Families should designate a friend or family member outside the area who each member can call to check in or report their whereabouts.
In most cases “sheltering in place” is the safest thing to do in a disaster, and families should prepare for disasters that take place while they are at home — by putting together an emergency preparedness kit that includes food, water, flashlights and a battery-powered radio, for example.
Organizations at the event will teach attendees how to make a 72-hour kit. That’s the amount of time it typically takes emergency services to reach residents in serious disasters.
The events of Sept. 11, 2001 and more recent disasters such as Hurricane Katrina have put frightening scenarios in citizens’ minds, Geraci said, and while they may have helped spur awareness of possible disasters, emergency preparedness isn’t about fear. On the contrary, it’s about peace of mind.
“It’s a matter of taking the time now when really nothing’s going on,” he said. “It’s going to reduce people’s anxieties when the time comes.”
COLLEEN BARLOW shares that belief. She has helped organize the event on behalf of the church parish, which has held similar events for its members in recent years.
The Mormon Church “teaches us that we should be self-reliant, that we should be able to take care of ourselves and our families,” Barlow said.
“People think that we’re waiting for some kind of apocalyptic end-of-the-world catastrophe,” she said, “But really it’s not about that. … It lessens anxiety if you’re prepared. That’s what our church teaches.”
Barlow stressed that the church wanted to reach out to others in the community, especially in light of Katrina and the 2004 Asian tsunami, but that the fair is a non-religious event.
“This is not about our church,” she said. “We’re not proselytizing. It’s just we’re using our building and we’re getting all the groups together.”
Barlow keeps water and non-perishable food and emergency heating and lighting on hand. She said that when a storm knocks out power, most of her friends simply come over to her house.
THE EVENT SPONSORS are all local organizations, including the local chapters of the Red Cross, by design. It’s those agencies and not the federal Homeland Security Department or Federal Emergency Management Agency that are most likely to aid citizens in an emergency, organizers said.
In addition to emergency response groups, electricity provider Pepco will be on hand to provide information about power outages and the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission will address water issues and contamination threats.
The county Homeland Security Department was formed last year to coordinate local agencies, manage federal and state grant money, and educate the public.
Montgomery County has emergency response and search and rescue teams that are among the top-ranked teams in the country, and the county has been preparing for nuclear and terrorist threats since the mid-1990s, Geraci said, in contrast to other jurisdictions that only started such preparations after Sept. 11.
But he said that the county sees no need for a countywide evacuation plan. Instead it prepares for localized evacuations that might be needed in the event of a hazardous material spill along I-270, I-495 or a railroad line and makes plans for how it would absorb evacuees from Washington, D.C. or coastal areas in the case of attacks or storms that cause people to flee.
During an interview last week, he spoke of the din of radios issuing alerts for boaters and residents along the Chesapeake Bay as thunderstorms moved through.
“Part of your plan is recognizing the hazards that are in your community,” Geraci said. “It’s a matter of just being more cognizant. … Have a plan, have an emergency kit. You don’t have to run to the store and get everything all at once. Rotate the food and the water every six months.”
He added, “Don’t forget about your pets. You know you need to take care of them too.”