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Managing Municipal Response Operations

Originally published in the NJ League of Municipalities Magazine, April 2001

Since 1992, New Jersey has received 12 Presidential Disaster Declarations. Within the 12-month period between September 1999 and August 2000, over one-half of New Jersey’s counties received Presidential Disaster Declarations due to flooding. This is the first in a series of articles designed to offer public officials management guidance for the post-disaster environment. Future articles will address the specifics of disaster relief, emergency planning, and reducing disaster-related economic losses.

As a municipal official, you can never be sure when disaster will strike; but when it does, you can depend on any number of grim scenarios affecting your community. There may be power outages, compromised water distribution systems, streets lined with debris or raw sewage, infrastructure damage, overloaded telephone and emergency communications systems, severely damaged homes, significant impacts on the municipal budget, and municipal property damage. There will be angry, confused, frightened and possibly, displaced community members with never-ending lists of losses. One compelling visual image of the incident can capture local and national media attention and attract sightseers to your community weeks to come.

You will tour this bleak landscape with county officials, state officials, federal officials, state legislators, congressional representatives and senators. You will answer endless media questions about economic impacts, the community's response, and what caused the incident. You will live through the most challenging and possibly, the most rewarding moments of your public service career. You will experience the best and the worst of your town's residents, its career employees and its municipal volunteers.

Despite these seemingly overwhelming obstacles, your community can survive, recover, and eventually thrive when disaster strikes. But you’ve got to know “how.” The key concept is emergency management. It's a process that starts when the wind is calm and long before the water begins to rise.

The NJ State Police Office of Emergency Management (NJOEM) oversees emergency management activities statewide. Headquartered in West Trenton, with field offices in Totowa, Edison and Buena, NJOEM programs closely model the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) 4-phase disaster cycle of mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery. It offers on-scene support, technical assistance, program guidance, free professional training programs, and limited financial aid to each of the state’s 21 counties and 566 municipalities.

“A successful emergency management program needs municipal leaders to support it during all phases,” explains Captain Kevin J. Hayden, Deputy State Director of the NJOEM. “The process starts when qualified individuals are appointed as municipal Emergency Management Coordinators and Local Emergency Planning Committee members. Then, give emergency management personnel the time and authority they need to work together to develop and exercise emergency operations plans.”

State law (App. A: 9-33 et. seq.) requires the appointment of county and municipal emergency management coordinators, and the development of local emergency operations plans in accordance with State guidelines. NJOEM staff members interact with county and local emergency management officials on a regular basis.

“Municipal officials should learn the basic language of emergency management – terms such as state of emergency, emergency declaration, and disaster declaration are often used interchangeably; but in reality they have different meanings,” Hayden adds.

A “state of local disaster emergency” (App. 9-40.5) can be declared locally by the emergency management coordinator. This decision should be made with the advice and consent of the chief elected official. A “state of local disaster emergency” enables the municipality to issue and enforce orders and procedures necessary to protect the health and safety of the public – travel or parking bans, for example.

The terms “emergency declaration” and “disaster declaration” are designations for specific jurisdictions (usually counties), if they become eligible for federal disaster assistance. All requests for federal disaster assistance are made to and must be approved by the President. They are prepared by the NJOEM using information provided by municipal and county OEM's; then transmitted to Washington through the Governor’s Office, FEMA Region II, and FEMA National Headquarters.

Emergency Operations Plans should address how the municipality will respond to the disaster; and how it intends to meet the disaster-related needs of individuals and the community-at-large. Managing local government operations after a disaster requires concurrent attention to both long-term and short-term recovery, which can be challenging.

In the short-term, citizens often need water, food, clothing, housing, or other essentials and they’ll need it right away. In order to deliver these resources when needed, your community should establish partnerships with the Red Cross, Salvation Army, local vendors, faith-based organizations, and civic leaders. These partnerships should be developed during the emergency planning process. Include all community members’ needs in your EOP, especially non-English speaking persons, seniors and persons with disabilities who may need evacuation assistance. Your community is likely to be on its own, or receive only limited assistance for the first 72 hours after the disaster, until major resources from national organizations arrive.

Residents will often demand long-term recovery solutions immediately after the event, such as acquisitions (“buy-outs”) or elevation projects. Long-term recovery involves careful and considered decisions about future land use, which affect the landscape of your community for generations to come.

Federal disaster relief programs are set up into two general categories – Public Assistance (to political jurisdictions) and Individual Assistance (to individuals and families). Since 1992, nearly $204 million in federal disaster relief has been issued to New Jersey residents and communities. That excludes U.S. Small Business Administration Loans, insured flood losses, and other non-grant forms of assistance, which increases this amount by hundreds of millions dollars.

Most federal assistance to individuals and families falls into the loan category, so homeowners and renters should be make sure they are covered by the proper type and amount of insurance, even if they live outside the floodplain. After a flood, thirty-percent of claims for disaster assistance are from individuals residing outside designated floodplain areas.

Local government will be residents' first call for help until State and FEMA officials arrive. Cooperation with NJOEM Rapid Response Team members during damage assessment will enhance the NJOEM's ability to collect the information needed to apply for federal disaster relief. Communicate with residents in all ways possible about the impact of the disaster, and steps the community is taking to help them. Use every communications outlet including media, community, civic and religious leaders, to offer information about where residents can get help.

Communities that have recovered successfully from disasters share a common characteristic -- local officials put aside turf issues, and acted as a town, not as individual departments, to resolve what had to be done. Disaster response demands coordinated, team-based participation from every municipal function, it is not limited to emergency services. Mayors and administrators who set this tone during the planning process will lead successful response and recovery operations when disaster strikes their communities.

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