Editor’s note: This story is the first in a series of public service articles about the Upshur County Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management and how citizens can get involved in emergency preparedness.
BUCKHANNON – At a recent meeting of one local community-minded civic organization, Steve Wykoff, the new director of the Upshur County Department of Homeland Security, asked the group if anyone had ever heard of his department.
In response, only about half of the 20 or more people present raised their hands, indicating they had heard of the county’s OEM, or office of emergency management. They didn’t realize, however, that the department’s name had transitioned to the Upshur County Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, and practically no one in the group knew exactly what the Upshur Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management did.
Wykoff and Upshur DHSEM deputy director Derek Long are making it their mission to change that.
“That is a huge issue because we can provide quite a bit of help, assistance and resources in times of emergencies,” Wykoff told My Buckhannon. “If it’s something we can’t provide for, we can at least provide resources for them to check into to accomplish those goals.”
“By not realizing the office exists, they’re not getting the information that they could potentially need to help them out in an emergency situation,” he added.
The Upshur DHSEM, according to its website, “is committed to an ‘all hazards’ approach to planning, protection, response, mitigation and recovery coordination of any incidents which may impact the safety or general welfare of the citizens of Upshur County.”
In that vein, Wykoff wants residents to know a few key points about the department: that it is a local presence with headquarters right here in Upshur County; that it can assist residents in times of disasters and larger-scale emergencies; and that it does emergency pre-planning. In addition, Wykoff says it’s important folks realize DHSEM is equipped with a wide range of resources, training and information it can supply to the community.
“We make plans, so 80 to 90 percent of what we do is sitting in front of a computer and brainstorming worst-case scenarios – ‘what would happen if, what would happen if, what would happen if?’ So, if Godzilla goes traipsing through Buckhannon, and that would never happen, but by God, we’re prepared for it,” Wykoff said. “The whole goal of this organization is to make sure the community is prepared and has the required resources needed in the event of a major incident.”
DHSEM sees that as a collaborative effort and works with county law enforcement agencies, fire departments, Upshur EMS, the American Red Cross, and local community and regional organizations to determine and secure the resources needed in the event of various emergencies. One of the department’s key responsibilities is ensuring Upshur County can operate independently of external resources, especially in the case of an event that affects multiple, surrounding West Virginia counties, should disaster strike.
“We want to make sure we’re somewhat self-sufficient because we want to be able to sustain ourselves for several days based on the resources that we have until, if it’s a major incident, FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) or the American Red Cross can get into the area,” Wykoff said. “It’ll usually take them a couple of days to mobilize and get the needed resources to us.”
DHSEM serves as a conduit between county, regional, state and federal resources, typically stepping in when an incident affects multiple people or households. For instance, it would likely get involved if a fire ravaged multiple residences or structures, as it did Oct. 5, 2021, when one of Buckhannon’s core Main Street buildings burned down, but not, for example, in a fire involving a single-family home.
“That was a multi-family building, so that’s where we start to step in and help out as do other agencies like the Parish House, etc.,” Wykoff said. “Now, that didn’t get to the level where FEMA needed to be contacted, obviously, but if it had spread down Main Street to other buildings, we would have seen more of a response.”
Emergency response and disaster planning are the cornerstones of what DHSEM does, and that includes developing an emergency operations plan that details the county’s emergency response to large-scale incidents as well as a continuity of operations plan, which explains the measures that will be taken to maintain ‘business as usual’ through an incident or a disaster, Wykoff said.
But preparation isn’t something that should take place just at DHSEM: Wykoff and Long are hoping community members learn what they can do in advance to prepare themselves for emergencies and disasters.
“It’s not just within these walls and this agency,” Wykoff said. “We also need to get that mindset out to the community as well and that way the community knows if there’s an incident or situation, this is who we call, this is what we do.”
To that end, the Upshur DHSEM offers several training courses, such as amateur/ham radio operations and is also promoting the Upshur County Community Emergency Response Team, or CERT, and encouraging residents to join it. CERT aims to train and educate people about disaster preparedness and response.
“The CERT training teaches anything from basic fire suppression to basic search-and-rescue to how to shut off utilities to basic extrication,” Wykoff explained. “It teaches medical response in a multi-casualty incident, so we teach triage as well, which is not something you’re going to get in a First Aid or CPR course, and that is to help those community members to take care of their families and their neighbors and their local area surrounding them.”
The goal is to provide a support system while waiting for professionals and/or resources to arrive.
“In any type of MCI, or multi-casualty incident, our professional resources – law enforcement, fire service, EMS – are going to be very taxed, so it could take a while for those professional resources to get to the incident area,” he said. “So if we’ve got trained people in the incident area itself, they know what to look for, they know how to do the incident reports and get the pertinent information back to us and we can feel confident that [CERT members] are able to support and keep people safe until we can get down there to help.”
Want to learn more about the Upshur DHSEM and how you can help? Anyone with questions is encouraged to visit Upshur DHSEM’s Facebook page, Nextdoor account and website. To stay up to date on local weather advisories, utility issues, street and courthouse closures, traffic issues and more, sign up for the Upshur County Wireless Emergency Network Notification System by simply texting ‘UpshurCoWVAlerts’ to 69310 or visiting http://entry.inspironlogistics.com/upshur_wv/wens.cfm.