From floods and blizzards to extreme temperatures and droughts, New England is increasingly experiencing climate-fueled disasters as the planet warms. Now, the six New England states have a plan to help emergency management professionals be prepared, with Massachusetts in the driver’s seat.
Governor Maura Healey announced a new training program Thursday morning that will provide education and expanded resources for Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, Connecticut, and Rhode Island.
Created by the six New England states and led by the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, the new Northeast Emergency Management Training Education Center will strengthen the region’s response to the climate crisis, Healey said in an e-mail statement.
“Today’s rapidly evolving threat landscape, driven in part by climate change, represents an immense challenge for the emergency management community,” she said. “When disaster strikes, emergency managers require the specialized knowledge and unique capabilities to adapt and respond effectively.”
The center will offer a variety of courses to all kinds of emergency management workers, including those in official state emergency management agencies as well as in related fields, such as public health and defense, in the public and private sector. Topics will range from how to manage an efficient emergency operation center — or response headquarters during an emergency — to how to manage an incident using FEMA protocols.
Employees of the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, which has more training staff than any other New England state, will teach the courses, though trainers from other states can also do so on a voluntary basis. For now, trainers will mostly administer courses they are already teaching in Massachusetts, but open them up to workers from other states. But soon, Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency acting director Dawn Brantley said she will embark on a needs assessment across all six states.
“We’re going to talk to emergency management professionals and find out from them what they would like to see us develop as a curriculum,” she said.
The project will be paid for with existing Massachusetts funds. Massachusetts leaders will also apply for additional funding from the federal government.
The launch comes as climate emergencies are becoming more frequent and severe. Over the past 50 years, there has been a five-fold increase globally in the number of climate disasters like droughts, storms, floods, and extreme temperatures, according to the UN’s World Meteorological Organization.
“With today’s ever-changing risk environment, there has perhaps never been a more important time to ensure emergency management practitioners are prepared to carry out their unique responsibilities and, most importantly, help those in need,” said Terrence M. Reidy, Massachusetts’ secretary of public safety and security.
These events can devastate communities and infrastructure, particularly in New England, which is warming faster than the rest of the planet and facing rapid sea level rise. By 2090, if it fails to prepare, Massachusetts could see more coastal storm surges flood evacuation routes, more roads and buildings destroyed by extreme weather, and over 400 additional heat-related deaths annually, a December state report says.
There’s evidence that climate change is already making events like storms and floods more common in the region. Nelson Wirtz, fire and emergency medical services chief for Oak Bluffs, has experienced these threats firsthand. He recalled how last summer, when a nor’easter hit Martha’s Vineyard, officials spent days encouraging vacationers to leave the island before the storm. Not everyone did, so when the rain started and the ferries had to stop, they were stranded.
“The phone started ringing with ‘I can’t get off the island ... what do I do,’” he said.
Extreme weather can also have cascading effects, including spurring power outages. In these events, Wirtz said, crews must know how to keep vulnerable people, such as the elderly and the immobile, safe. He believes the new training program could help responders better plan for such emergencies.
“Knowledge is power and these events have the ability to be extremely chaotic,” he said, adding that consistent regional training can help limit stress and boost efficiency.
Robert A. Christensen, preparedness and response chief for New Hampshire, said the program could also help the region prepare for compounding threats. He recalled, for instance, how much more difficult it was for responders to handle emergencies as the COVID-19 pandemic was surging.
“How do you roll up on scene and deal with somebody who’s having a cardiac arrest or administer CPR in a COVID environment?” he asked. It was hard to quickly adjust trainings, but the new regional initiative could make it easier, he said.
The region is also having to grapple with previously unfamiliar climate threats. This past summer, for instance, Massachusetts saw unprecedented wildfires thanks to record-breaking drought.
“In Massachusetts, we have seen wildland fires before,” said Brantley, “but not like this.”
Right now, the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency and other state agencies offer state-specific classes and ones from national administrators like FEMA and the National Fire Academy. But Wirtz said region-specific classes will give him the invaluable ability to meet with other emergency managers from New England.
“I learn a whole lot from my peers,” he said.
William H. Turner, state emergency management director for Connecticut, added that some trainings have minimum participation requirements, which will be easier to fulfill if states “band together.” The regional program will also make trainings easier to attend, he said, a sentiment echoed by Rhode Island emergency management officials in a statement. Right now, Turner’s agency must often send staff to far-away federal trainings.
“For FEMA or Homeland Security trainings, we often have to send staff out to Maryland,” he said, “but having something like this in our own backyard ... is just going to be just a lot easier.”
A regional initiative, said Brantley, can also be more nimble than a federal one.
“FEMA training takes years to develop and update,” she said. “It’s just not as agile as we need it to be these days for emergency management.”
Christian Horvath, emergency preparedness director for Plymouth, said the program could relieve pressure for small teams like his. Officials say Plymouth is increasingly facing climate change-fueled sea level rise, storm surge, and extreme heat and drought. But the town has just two full-time emergency response employees — himself and an administrative assistant — plus a dozen volunteers whom Horvath must train.
“If [the new program] can offer training, rather than myself, that definitely takes a little bit of a load off,” he said.
Dharna Noor can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @dharnanoor.