State Cuts Two of Five Regional Emergency Management Offices

The Daugaard Administration is consolidating five regional emergency management offices down to three. The state Office of Emergency Management will close offices in Sioux Falls and Pierre and move their responsibilities to Mitchell and Rapid City. The state will keep its regional emergency management office in Aberdeen.

I checked the mileage and travel time charts to see how much more time it would take for regional emergency management staff to drive to various communities. Looking just at towns of population over 1,000, I found that 28 population centers out of 66 listed would experience longer physical response times from regional OEM staff having to travel from Mitchell or Rapid City instead of Sioux Falls or Pierre. 24 of those towns, with total population of over 267,000, would see an increase in physical response time of over 30 minutes. The average increase in physical response time to those communities is 52 minutes.

But notice that I keep saying physical response time. We don’t appear to be talking about moving firetrucks and bulldozers. We appear to only be talking about moving emergency management coordinators, the folks who call around to the local response teams to find out what they need and help direct first responders and gear where it’s needed. Do regional OEM staff need to race out to a disaster site and be on the ground to coordinate, or can they phone in the job?

Minnehaha County Commissioner Jeff Barth thinks location matters:

“I think having a person here would be better,” Commissioner Jeff Barth said during a commission meeting Tuesday. “The potential for disaster is greater here than it is in, let’s say, Harding County. With our population and the transportation issues, the infrastructure issues that we have — we could easily have some incredible disasters out this way” [Joe Sneve, “State Emergency Office Pulling Coordinator from S.F.,” that Sioux Falls paper, 2015.05.19].

OEM state director Tina Titze says Sioux Falls and other big towns are better equipped to handle disasters:

The reorganization efforts, she said, are aimed at increasing efficiency and better positioning the department’s six regional coordinators to assist smaller communities that might not have the local resources needed for emergency response.

“Minnehaha County and the city of Sioux Falls are very well prepared, probably our most prepared county in the state with the resources they have available to them,” Titze said. “What we find is it’s the other counties, some of the smaller populated counties, that need us to respond more quickly to assist them because they just don’t have those resources available” [Sneve, 2015.05.19].

Check that, Director Titze: yes, you’re getting efficiency, but you’re not moving any new offices any closer to those small communities. Colman, Onida, and Reliance don’t get quicker service by closing the Sioux Falls and Pierre offices. On face, it only appears the state is reducing services.

And whatever efficiency may be gained, it’s not reflected in the budget. The Legislature gave emergency services a 3.5% increase in state funding. OEM appears to be largely funded by federal dollars: from FY2014 to FY2015, federal dollars for emergency services more than doubled, and in FY2016, federal funding for emergency services remains at over $15 million compared to the state’s spending of $1.7 million.

We like to talk about consolidation of South Dakota government services as a potential budget saver, but the closing of these two regional emergency management offices doesn’t appear on paper to be delivering the savings we’d expect.

Update 08:20 CDT: Tony Mangan of the Department of Public Safety tells Dakota Free Press confirms that this consolidation of administrative locations does not affect the placement of any first-response resource. We also aren’t cutting any jobs; we are simply moving three regional managers. Let’s borrow the KELO map:

Map of SD Office of Emergency Management regions and offices pre-May 2015. Map by KELO-TV.
Map of SD Office of Emergency Management regions and offices pre-May 2015. Map by KELO-TV.

Under the consolidation plan, the Sioux Falls and Pierre regional offices close, but the remaining three offices will each house two managers. Mitchell will house the managers for Regions 6 and 1. Rapid City will house the managers for Regions 4 and 5. Aberdeen will house the managers for Regions 2 and 3.

Two regional managers in one office is not new. Pierre right now houses the managers for Regions 3 and 5.

Mangan says the efficiency Titze speaks of is less about budget savings (not a major factor in this decision-making process) and more about efficient allocation of existing resources. Mangan says OEM sees no reduction in service resulting from this change. To the contrary, having two managers in one office allows more collaboration to respond to large disasters in any given region.

Update 10:03 CDT: OEM director confirms and expands on spokesman Mangan’s responses to my questions:

DFP: How many FTEs does this consolidation cut?

Titze: “The SDOEM office will have the same number of FTE covering the same areas as they currently do.”

DFP: How much money will this consolidation save?

Titze: “The potential savings from reducing offices is not the reason for the consolidation. Currently most regional offices are staffed with one person, this consolidation of offices will allow us to better utilize resources and allow our staff to more easily work together and support each other’s assigned regions. By being stationed together they will have a better understanding of each other’s regions and can quickly assist that regional coordinator in a large event or in a situation where more than one impact affects a region. We have discussed the plans with the County EMs across the state over the past month and have received positive feedback. Services and support to the counties will remain the same.”

DFP: Does this consolidation include moving or reducing any emergency response resources (vehicles, heavy equipment, rescue gear, first responders, etc.), or does this consolidation only move management personnel?

Titze: “It is simply locating some personnel in different locations. It does allow them to share some resources however items such as vehicles will remain the same as it is important that each Regional Coordinator can respond quickly to assist their regions.”

One Response to State Cuts Two of Five Regional Emergency Management Offices

  1. In the past, I spent 12 years as Director of a county-level Emergency Management Agency. Much like South Dakota, most state EMAs are broken down into regions or districts, each with a state-level coordinator who works with all county EMA Directors within his/her region/district. The most important thing to remember about disasters is ALL disasters occur at the local level. With the exception of a terrorist incident, where the FBI would more than likely come in and take over, the locals are always in charge of the response. The state doesn’t come in and take over. Every level of government above the local level are there for one purpose and one purpose only… Resources. If local government runs out of resources, they contact the county and the county coordinates with other towns within the county to assist the one affected by the disaster. If the county runs out of resources, they contact the state and the state coordinates with other counties not affected by the incident to send their resources to the affected county. If the state runs out of resources, they contact the feds and the feds send in additional resources. In my 12 years in EMA, I had many incidents within my county, such as major flooding, tornadoes ranging from EF-1 to EF-4, large-scale fires, HAZMAT incidents, helicopter crashes, an airplane crash, etc, etc. We were able to handle most of these incidents locally. Other times we needed resources from other counties around us or from the state. That is where the state coordinator comes in. They don’t have to be on-scene to do their job. Of all those incidents I was a part of, I can count on one hand the number of times I needed our district coordinator to be on-site or in our Emergency Operations Center.