|Prepare, and prepare early|
|By Ann Coppola, News Reporter|
Much like Louisiana, Florida serves as a pretty big bull’s-eye during hurricane season. The Sunshine State has 54 major correctional institutions and five private prisons that could potentially fall in the path of a major storm.
During the 2004 hurricane season Florida faced the merciless parade of Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne from August 13 to September 25, which amounted to two category four storms in a one-month span. Jeanne alone hit facilities with hurricane force winds of 74 miles-per-hour or greater. For those four storms, the Florida Department of Corrections evacuated a total of 13,429 inmates.
Since then, the FLDOC has been using a statewide computerized preparedness system to protect all employees, their families and inmates. Corrections.com spoke with FLDOC Assistant Secretary of Institutions George Sapp and Correctional Programs Administrator Randy Agerton about this massive undertaking.
Corrections.com: How do you prepare for hurricane season?
George Sapp: We don’t just prepare for the season, we constantly prepare and implement emergency plans in all of our facilities. We have our own hurricane plan as part of our twelve emergency plans, from bomb threats to employee strikes to natural disasters, which we update annually. We have almost 93,000 inmates and 150,000 people on probation, and we have to take care of all of those individuals during a storm.
CC: How did the 2004 hurricanes impact your planning?
GS: Florida was hit hard in the 2004 season. We evacuated hundreds of thousands of inmates. We had to really gear up – it was such a tough season. We got through it all and didn’t lose a single inmate. In that year, we developed our computerized emergency management system.
CC: What’s the purpose of the system?
GS: It’s a huge effort to keep up with and get information out to our staff to keep them apprised of what’s going on, especially when and where we have to evacuate. The system includes information accessible online for all institution and probation officers. We modeled it after the state’s emergency management system. It’s been a huge help in terms of tracking incidents, tracking staff when they need to leave to check on their families, and also tracking resources in order to get reimbursement from FEMA.
CC: What steps do you take as a storm approaches?
GS: Regional directors and wardens report to their facilities as we monitor the storm. We have certain automatic steps at all facilities for when the storm is 72, 48, and then 24 hours out. As we learn about what institutions will be in the path of that storm, the warden, the regional directors, and myself as the incident commander of the emergency operations center, begin discussing very early who to evacuate.
CC: How long does it take to evacuate a facility?
Randy Agerton: In an average size facility, which is about 1,000 to 1,200 inmates, it takes approximately ten to twelve hours to evacuate and entirely transport the inmates.
CC: How do you prepare staff for potential evacuations?
RA: It’s part of orientation for new employees. They get basic emergency training during basic recruitment. We do mock drills; they have to make and go over their own family plan, and they get annually certified in emergency preparedness. We acknowledge that they’ve got to prepare their families first. There can be special needs, like a staff member who has an ailing grandmother. We discuss the options they have to ensure their families are taken care of.
GS: One of the big things we do is make sure that all of our staff, not just corrections but probation, have an individualized preparedness plan for themselves and their families. You have to allow staff to make sure their families are taken care of. We put a big emphasis on that. The goal of the computerized system is to make sure staff completely follows their plan if any situations arise. If a staff member needs to go home to take care of their family, we can track that.
CC: What do you do to help a facility whose staff becomes depleted?
GS: We also have strike teams that are five man teams. We have 54 major institutions and each one automatically develops two to three strike teams which we can deploy to affected areas early on in the storm to supplement staff. They already know the equipment and already know they’re in for extended stays of tough duty. We provide the same thing on the probation side as well.
CC: Do you have any emergency management advice for other states and facilities?
GS: Prepare, prepare early, and make sure you look after the staff first. Make sure they’re prepared and they have a personalized plan. If your staff members feel comforted that their family will be taken care of then they can respond and protect the public like they were hired to do. I know it’s hard for agencies with so many things to do outside of planning for an emergency, but you’ve got to keep focused on potential emergencies all the time. For us, it’s not just about hurricane season. It requires constant vigilance.
Backed up on the bayou
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