When disaster hits — manmade or natural — Brown County Emergency Management Agency Director Sara Vasquez is the maestro orchestrating the response.
But since Brown County doesn’t have disasters often, most days, Vasquez is filling out paperwork, training and doing what she can to get the public to prepare.
She tries to do an event monthly, such as talking with seniors at Willow Manor or children about what they should do in case of a natural disaster or a fire.
How does she get people to care about preparation?
“It’s really hard,” she said.
“We do outreach programs, and we found that we really target the younger children. There’s nothing like your kid coming home from school and saying, ‘We need to get prepared,’” she said.
She sends information home about house fire safety and natural disaster safety. She goes to the schools to observe fire and tornado drills and offer tips.
“The younger kids, it’s always about fire. ‘What if my house is on fire and I am in my room and there’s a fire outside my door?’ Every time, I get that question,” Vasquez said.
“The other one I get a lot is, ‘What if there’s an ice storm and we don’t have power? And we don’t have a wood stove? How do we stay warm?’”
She helps children understand that they can play a role in keeping their families safe.
Her favorite preparation idea came from a boy who said he would keep a raft in his home in case of a flood so he could just float away.
“Honestly, some of them come up with some really good ideas,” she said.
Some students take those ideas and run with them on a large scale. For two years, Vasquez has helped Boy Scouts with Eagle Scout projects.
Last November, Lane Rice installed 131 smoke alarms in homes around the community as part of the American Red Cross home fire prevention campaign.
Jackson Kelp put together comfort kits that could be distributed to disaster victims. They included basic necessities and toys for children. The inspiration came from a discussion with Vasquez about the July flooding, Kelp said.
Vasquez started as a volunteer firefighter before becoming the deputy director of EMA for almost two years. She left that job for about a year to work at Dr. James Brester’s animal clinic in Bean Blossom, and still works there part-time.
She became EMA director in 2012.She is also an emergency medical technician. She pulls open a desk drawer and produces a pile of certificates, all earned since she started this job.
Vasquez attends many conferences and receives an “astronomical” amount of training. She’s thankful for it when responding to disasters she hasn’t dealt with before, like a large-scale flood.
Flooding here last July was her first major natural disaster to handle.
She has support from a variety of groups.
When a disaster or emergency is declared, decision makers come together in one room to form the emergency operation center, or EOC.
During the flood, they included the county commissioners, the county auditor, town officials, the highway department and law enforcement.
“Basically, you bring those leaders that need to be in there for that disaster to the table and we make decisions,” she said. “We want the person who can make that split-second decision.”
In the winter, Vasquez is responsible for issuing travel advisories, with the input of the county commissioners and the highway department. It’s up to residents to check with their employers to determine whether or not a travel advisory means a day home from work, she said.
Vasquez is also a member of the Local Emergency Planning Committee, or LEPC, which deals with hazardous material situations.
When a trailer carrying a tank full of anhydrous ammonia spilled on Gatesville Road early on a Saturday last spring, Vasquez was on scene.
EMA works in concert with emergency responders; the agency does not take over a scene; she said.
Local volunteer fire departments took charge of the ammonia spill and were responsible for calling in help to help control it, she said. Meanwhile, EMA worked with local media to inform residents on what they should do to protect themselves from hazardous fumes.
Vasquez also has support from the Emergency Management Advisory Council, or EMAC. Members discuss ideas for changes to the county’s disaster plan, which encompasses all sorts of disasters. The council includes representatives from county commissioners, county council, sheriff’s department, EMS and volunteer fire departments.
“A lot of people think that they’re an agency that goes out and does things, but they’re just an advisory board for me,” Vasquez said.
Vasquez also works closely with Brown County Emergency Preparedness/Public Health Coordinator Corey Frost.
“If there’s a health emergency, he will coordinate. We work hand in hand, so if he calls me and says there’s an outbreak, I am going to activate my EOC and he will activate his next steps,” she said.
After the storm
The EMA is responsible for monitoring long-term effects of damages to property when multiple people or households are affected by a disaster.
When Vasquez arrives on a scene, she begins to organize the resources necessary to deal with the disaster, whether it be calling the Red Cross for supplies or bringing in a volunteer group to cut trees and muck out houses after a flood.
“It’s resources like that that are available that the public doesn’t know about. That is my job to have this list to call these people and orchestrate the event,” she said.
When the flood water receded last summer, her job was just beginning.
“I can honestly say about three months was the most hectic time I worked here,” she said of the months following the flood.
Being able to make a difference in many people’s lives is what attracts her to this kind of work.
“It’s not helping one person at a time, it’s helping multiple people. It’s not something that you see every day. I am not making changes you see every day, but it’s more of the changes that will affect us long-term.”
Especially in times of disaster, Vasquez is thankful to live and work in a small town.
“It was amazing at how many people just pitched in and helped. At one point, we were so overwhelmed with donations, that we had to say, ‘Hold on. Let’s elaborate (on) what we need.’ People were just coming in with boxes and bags. We didn’t have enough space,” she said.
“When you look at the big cities, they don’t have that.”
The Emergency Management Agency is still working to get more smoke alarms and weather alert radios in more Brown County homes.
Last fall, EMA Director Sara Vasquez worked with local Boy Scout Lane Rice to install smoke alarms in homes that didn’t have any or didn’t have enough, and homeowners also received a weather radio and a fire escape plan.
Of the 54 homes they hit, 37 had no working smoke alarms.
Prevention is key to survival, Vasquez said.
“That was actually probably the most eye-opening experience that I have been a part of in the EMA, of how many people don’t have smoke alarms, that aren’t prepared and how many of it is children and the elderly,” Vasquez said.
Anyone who wishes to be added to the list can call 812-988-2063.
Pets are sometimes overlooked when making a disaster preparation plan, said Brown County Emergency Management Agency Director Sara Vasquez.
“During the flood, we had some chickens and their chicken feed was washed away. The lady called me and I had really no resources for chicken feed. That was something we just picked up during the flood and figured out,” she said.
“During a disaster, we preach at everyone to be prepared for yourself, but if you have four dogs, you’ve got to be prepared for your dogs, too.”
At the Brown County 4-H Fair, EMA distributes pamphlets on emergency/disaster preparedness. A pet emergency kit should include:
- Leash or harness with collar
- Pet carrier or cage for each pet
- Two-week supply of food and water
- Can opener for canned foods
- Food and water bowls
- Towels or blankets for bedding
- Toys and treats
- Cat litter and a shoebox-sized litter pan
- Plastic bags for waste cleanup
- Current photos of each pet
- Medications and dosing instructions
- Emergency phone list with pet-friendly hotels in the area and pet-friendly friends and relatives
Pet owners also should have pets microchipped or wearing a collar with identification and keep pet vaccinations current.
SOURCE: Indiana State Board of Animal Health
LEARN: Brown County Emergency Management Agency Director Sara Vasquez encourages families to remain calm and make educated decisions by tracking the news on TV, radio or the Internet. “If you’re prepared and you know what to do ahead of time, it will make it so much easier during a disaster,” she said.
PACK: A disaster kit should be stored in a container, like a camping backpack or trash can, in a dry area. The American Red Cross encourages making a smaller version of the kit in your car. The kit should include:
- Water, one gallon per person, per day
- Nonperishable but healthy food
- Manual can opener
- Medications, at least a three-day supply
- Identification and insurance information
- A small amount of cash and coins
- First aid kit
- Weather radio
- Plastic sheeting and strong tape
- Filter mask in case of air pollution
- Garbage bags and ties, a bucket and toilet paper
- Paper towels and moist towelettes
- Three-day supply of clean clothes
- Jacket or coat
- Blanket or sleeping bag
PLAN: A family disaster plan should include two meeting places in case of evacuation. One should be a safe distance from home in case of fire, and the other a place outside of your neighborhood if you cannot return home.
Responsible family members should be shown how to shut off water, gas and electricity at main switches.
The Red Cross also advises choosing an out-of-state friend to be the person everyone calls and checks in with.
COORDINATE: Neighborhoods are advised to discuss how they could work together to help elderly or disabled neighbors or provide child care in case parents can’t get home.
Sources: American Red Cross and Brown County EMA