First responders gather from all around the state
MOUNDSVILLE — First responders from across West Virginia sounded the alarm Friday about plans to reorganize the state’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management and how what one member called the “militarization” of the agency could impact local control of their responses to natural disasters.
Emergency management directors from all 55 counties took part in the state’s Emergency Management Council meeting in Moundsville and voted unanimously to oppose any legislation that would place Homeland Security under supervision of the West Virginia National Guard.
The emergency officials also said they disagreed with a legislative plan that would establish a “resiliency officer” cabinet-level position under the governor and whether disaster relief would be distributed through a military authority fund.
“They’re trying to militarize all of this, and we’re civilians,” said Cindy Hart, who serves as Randolph County’s 911 and emergency management director. “I have good friends in the military, but if I wanted to be within a military presence, I would’ve done it 30 years ago. I work for the community. I work for the citizens.”
The Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management should fall within the state Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety. But Gov. Jim Justice in October ordered the agency to operate under the authority of the National Guard, and is pushing for legislation to make that arrangement permanent.
The vote Friday was in opposition to Senate Bill 326, which passed the Senate earlier this year but died in a House of Delegates committee.
The emergency management directors said they’re concerned about whether it could be resurrected – or a similar bill – during an upcoming special legislative session.
Walter Smittle, the director of emergency services in Jackson County and a retired state fire marshal, said their concerns could be a “moot point” with rumors of a new bill that might be introduced during the special session expected in June.
“We’re spinning our wheels,” Smittle said before the vote. “How are we going to coordinate our positions if there’s a new bill?”
But Dean Meadows, who is president of the Emergency Management County and serves as emergency management director in Wyoming County, wanted a coordinated response to the governor and legislature.
“We need to solidify our positions today,” Meadows said. “We’ve got to have all 55 counties on the same page for this. I would just like for a group of us to be together.”
State Del. Buck Jennings, a Republican who represents Preston and Tucker counties, said there is still a lot that must be decided with potential legislation, but he opposed moving Homeland Security under the National Guard. He said the guard should serve in a support role for local emergency responders, not oversee their agencies.
“I don’t want to leave it like this,” Jennings said. “Once it changes for good, it will never come back.”
Upshur County 911 Director Doyle Cutright said local control is especially important when coordinating immediate responses to natural disasters, such as flooding and blizzards.
“It’s going to be problematic, at some point,” Cutright said if there is a change.
Homeland Security and Emergency Management Director Michael Todorovich attended the meeting and tried to alleviate concerns about possible changes.
“We owe our communities an idea of what’s going on,” he said.
Todorovich said he spoke to West Virginia National Guard Adj. Gen. James Hoyer earlier about the situation and learned that “the only thing on the table” is the position of state resiliency officer would be within the governor’s office and that Homeland Security would remain under its existing structure, rather than legally under the National Guard.
Following a 45-minute private executive session, the Emergency Management Council returned to vote in opposition to the previous bill. However, Meadows and other members admitted said they still have more questions than answers.
“The joint Enhanced 911 and Emergency Management councils are against the bill as written,” Meadows said. “Until we’ve seen it in writing. … What we’ve seen in writing (up to now) we’re against.”