Speak Your Piece: Saving Lives and Livelihoods

When rural disasters strike, the first priority of government emergency responders is protecting lives. But what about protecting livelihoods? That’s where volunteers -- “the Carhartt and cowboy hat army” – come in. USDA Extension is helping both groups learn how to work together for better results.

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Rural disasters often mobilize two self-described groups:

  • “The red-light team” from the official ranks of fire, emergency medicine and law enforcement systems.
  • And “the Carhartt and cowboy-hat army,” including agriculture producers and their children, friends, and relatives serving officially and unofficially as emergency responders.

Both groups bring critical knowledge and skills. An inter-agency effort that includes land-grant university Extension offices is helping these groups work together to achieve better results.

Why grow the role of the Carhartts?

County emergency managers operate within the framework of the Incident Command System (ICS) and the National Incident Management System (NIMS) to handle emergencies and disasters. By law, emergency and disaster response managers prioritize human safety. When large-scale incidents occur, they direct resources to human safety before property losses and damage.

When emergencies, hazards, outbreaks or other incidents affect crops, livestock and infrastructure, agriculture producers take action, often applying emergency management principles, to protect their livelihood.

Food supplies and local economies may be at risk.  In Wyoming, agriculture is a top-three industry. Community emergency response teams for agriculture throughout the country have helped mitigate disaster impacts to keep the business of agriculture going.

Several counties in Nebraska reduced their livestock response times from an average of nine hours to 47 minutes after county officials and agriculture producers developed a strong system. The result has been an estimated 5,000 head of cattle ‒ worth around $12 million ‒ saved.

Emergency managers who have implemented agriculture branches within their operations find they have resources who bring personal knowledge, alternative routes and the expertise and manpower to operate equipment, evacuate livestock and animals, deliver supplies, and deal with everything from ownership questions to disease awareness…all without reducing or redirecting the fire, medical and law enforcement resources needed for human safety.

Is it Time to Stack Hay?

Coordinating the strengths of emergency managers and agriculture producers is like stacking hay – you have to do it because there is a need.

A USDA Extension Service program is helping emergency responders and agricultural producers work together. In 2002, land-grant university Extension programs introduced the Strengthening Community Agro-Security Preparedness (SCAP) curriculum in cooperation with USDA National Institute for Food and Agriculture, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The program has led to better communication, coordination and training. Emergency managers and ag producers working with SCAP facilitators have drafted or updated agriculture disaster and other plans in 311 of the nation’s counties.

A barn fire in Trufant, Michigan. Photo by Cory Smith/Daily News
A barn fire in Trufant, Michigan. Photo by Cory Smith/Daily News

There are three steps to this process:

1) Emergency managers, authorities and producers work together to identify risks, resources, and community capabilities. From this they can identify vulnerabilities. For example, large propane tanks for powering irrigation pumps could present a serious vulnerability in the path of a wildfire.

2) The parties develop a collaborative effort to mitigate or resolve identified vulnerabilities. Under the authority and guidance of the emergency manager, agriculture producers can typically participate as a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) or Agriculture Citizens Emergency Response Team (AgCERT). This framework for authority, communication, insurance and training supports the effective integration of these new emergency response teams.

3) Participants train, equip and maintain the new resource teams. Improving rural disaster response requires maintaining the readiness and fitness level of AgCERTs so they operate safely and efficiently. Volunteers and the public entities must commit to train regularly, and volunteer AgCERT leaders must step forward.

Put Your Expertise to Work

After Extension personnel assisted one Colorado county through an agro-security preparedness program, the emergency manager quipped, “I wished I’d known sooner that these folks [ag producers] have so much expertise, resources, and ability. Now I know if I don’t have them cooperating, I’m liable to have them rolling right around me!”

Agriculture producers can tap into their communities to recruit motivated “Carhartt and cowboy-hat” reinforcements and galvanize advocates for expanded disaster funding. The process takes commitment, but rural residents tend to commit strongly to efforts they help develop. Another benefit? The gratification of forging new working relationships.

If you want to address your county’s agriculture readiness, visit with your county emergency manager and then contact your local Extension office.

Scott Cotton is a University of Wyoming Extension educator in range management, livestock production, rural acreage management and agriculture and disaster resilience. He is the Wyoming delegate for the Extension Disaster Education Network. Contact him at 307-235-9400 or [email protected].

 

Topics: Environment
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