Editorial: The evolving role of LE in disaster response

Following 9/11 and subsequent natural and man-made disasters, LE agencies have embraced new responsibilities associated with disaster preparedness and response


By Sheriff Leon Lott, P1 Contributor

As Hurricane Florence bears down on the Carolinas – unquestionably the greatest storm threat to the Eastern Seaboard thus far in the 2018 Atlantic hurricane season – law enforcement agencies like the Richland County Sheriff’s Department (RCSD) are prepared for any and all eventualities. We’ve already established our command post in central South Carolina even though, as of this writing, Florence is still 1,000-plus miles away from the S.C. coastline.

The fact is that our capabilities in 2018 transcend traditional police lanes.

 Disaster preparedness and disaster response are as much a part of 21st century policing as keeping the peace. (Photo/RCSD)
Disaster preparedness and disaster response are as much a part of 21st century policing as keeping the peace. (Photo/RCSD)

Embracing our changing responsibilities

For many decades, law enforcement agencies have maintained a cultural distance from the responsibilities of disaster preparedness – whether natural or man-made disasters – and response. Those things have been traditionally deemed the purview of firefighters, EMS, the Red Cross, weather forecasters, engineers and, to a degree, the military. Granted, law enforcement personnel have always had important roles to play in disaster response, but those roles have primarily been limited to keeping the peace, protecting lives and property, and otherwise enforcing the law.

That all changed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. On that day and during that series of asymmetrical events, everyone was doing their jobs and helping manage and shoulder some of the responsibilities of others. All were attempting to mitigate the damage to lives and property. We recognized that responsibilities overlapped and knowledge sharing was imperative.

That day forever changed the culture of policing and public safety – locally, statewide and nationally.

Perhaps the most important lesson for law enforcement coming out of 9/11 was that we needed dramatically improved, seamless interagency communication. During the attacks and in the immediate aftermath, there were a number of potentially disastrous communications problems. Agencies were unable to communicate and coordinate efforts with other agencies.

Improving our communications, training

Since 9/11, law enforcement’s approach to any and all man-made and natural disasters has made a 180-degree turn. Today our interagency relations and communications are at an all-time high. At RCSD we have an open line of communication with the U.S. Army at Fort Jackson, the S.C. adjutant general’s office, the state’s Emergency Management Division and others.

We are trained and equipped for everything from swift water rescue (whether by boat, a landed position or deputies trained and equipped to enter the water and save lives); to providing food, water, clothing and other essentials to disaster victims; transportating evacuees; even fielding chainsaw teams to cut trees off houses and clear debris blocking roads for other emergency response personnel needing access.

Together with other law enforcement agencies around the country, we have embraced our newfound responsibilities. Disaster preparedness and disaster response are as much a part of 21st century policing as are keeping the peace, counter-looting operations, enforcing curfews, and ensuring our citizens and their property are safe and secure.

Today, all RCSD deputies and other officers are required to train through FEMA’s National Incident Management System (NIMS). This program is but one of many steps taken to ensure our men and women are fully prepared for as yet unforeseen natural or man-made disasters. Deputies also receive incident management training at RCSD, and many have earned their undergraduate or graduate degrees in emergency management. This is now part of our culture.

Training and retraining for non-traditional roles in emergency response enabled us in recent years – specifically Hurricanes Joaquin in 2015, Matthew in 2016 and Irma in 2017 – to effectively mitigate what otherwise might have been something beyond-catastrophic in terms of numbers of lives lost. Isn’t that what law enforcement is all about?


About the author

Sheriff Leon Lott leads the Richland County Sheriff’s Dept., one of the largest law enforcement agencies in S.C., and one of six regularly featured LE agencies on A&E’s top-rated TV series, LIVE PD. In 2010, Lott traveled to Erbil, Iraq – at the invitation of the Iraqi government – to assist in the establishment of, planning for and training at the first Iraqi female police academy.

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