skip navigation

Emergency Declarations and Authority

This page provides an overview of general emergency powers and authority for local governments in Washington State, including relevant statutes, federal and state authority, emergency meetings, and local emergency declarations and examples.

It is part of MRSC’s series on Emergency Management.


Overview

When local governments are faced with certain emergencies, the authorized local government official(s) – mayor, city manager, board of county commissioners, etc. – may formally declare an emergency.

A local emergency declaration can allow the local government to quickly make emergency expenditures, bypassing normal procedural requirements related to budgeting and contracting, as well as potentially accessing state and federal reimbursement at a later date if such funds are made available.

In addition, state and federal authorities can also issue emergency declarations and orders that can potentially impact local governments or trigger certain laws.

Practice Tips:

  • Local governments should carefully track all funds expended for a particular emergency in order to support any future reimbursement from state and federal sources.
  • Any purchase, public works project, or service for which a competitive process is waived must be an explicit necessity and directly related to the emergency. For more information, see our page on Competitive Bidding Exemptions.

Emergency Statutes

Below are selected statutes related to local emergency declarations, emergency expenditures, and related topics.

General Legal Citations

  • Ch. 38.52 RCW — Emergency Management
    • RCW 38.52.070(2) — Emergency declarations for all "political subdivisions," defined in RCW 38.52.010 to mean "any county, city or town"
    • RCW 38.52.091 — Authorizes local emergency management organizations to collaborate with other public and private agencies via a mutual aid or interlocal agreement
  • RCW 39.04.280 — Competitive bidding waivers for emergency public works and emergency purchases
  • RCW 39.80.060 — Emergency architecture and engineering contracts
  • Ch. 42.12 RCW — Continuity of Government Act in the event of enemy attack or catastrophic incident
  • RCW 43.06.220 — Powers of governor pursuant to emergency proclamations
  • WAC 246-100-070 — Enforcement of local health officer orders

City/Town Statutes - Nondebatable Emergency Expenditures

  • RCW 35A.33.080 — Code cities operating with an annual budget
  • RCW 35A.34.140 — Code cities operating with a biennial budget
  • RCW 35.33.081 — Non-code cities and towns less than 300,000 population operating with an annual budget
  • RCW 35.34.140 — Non-code cities operating with a biennial budget
  • RCW 35.32A.060 — Cities over 300,000 population

County Statutes

  • RCW 36.40.180 — Nondebatable emergency expenditures
  • RCW 36.32.270 — Competitive bidding waivers for emergency public works and emergency purchases (references RCW 39.04.280)

Federal Emergency Authority

Federal officials have the authority to declare regional or national emergencies that can impact local governments in Washington State.

The President may declare national emergencies under the National Emergencies Act (50 U.S.C. Chapter 34). Any national emergency may not exceed one year at a time and may be terminated earlier by the president or a joint vote of Congress, but the emergency declaration may be continued in one-year increments (50 U.S.C. § 1622). State and local governments may separately request presidential disaster declarations under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (42 U.S.C. Chapter 68).


Governor’s Emergency Authority

The governor has the authority to issue emergency proclamations under RCW 43.06.220, which has two distinct components: (1) prohibiting activities and (2) waiving or suspending existing statutes.

Prohibiting Activities

The governor has sole authority to issue and extend emergency proclamations under RCW 43.06.220(1), which includes:

  • Imposing curfews, restricting public assembly, and/or prohibiting the use of certain streets or public ways by the public,
  • Prohibiting the manufacture, possession, transportation, or use of explosive or combustible devices or materials,
  • Prohibiting the sale, purchase, or dispensing of alcohol or other goods that the governor reasonably believes should be prohibited to help preserve and maintain life, health, property, or the public peace, and
  • “Such other activities as [the governor] reasonably believes should be prohibited to help preserve and maintain life, health, property or the public peace.”

The governor may impose these restrictions “for such times, upon such conditions, with such exceptions and in such areas of the state he or she from time to time deems necessary” (RCW 43.06.220(3)).

A state appeals court, in upholding a statewide eviction moratorium during the COVID-19 pandemic, has noted that the “other activities” language in RCW 43.06.220(1)(h) is “unambiguous” and allows the governor to prohibit any activities the governor reasonably believes necessary to preserve life, health, property, or the public peace (Gonzales v. Inslee, No. 55915-3-II, Div. II Washington Court of Appeals, February 23, 2022).

Examples of past emergency prohibitions under RCW 43.06.220(1)(h) have included, but are not limited to:

  • Prohibiting outdoor burning during periods of extreme fire danger
  • During the COVID-19 pandemic:
    • Prohibiting individuals from leaving home or appearing in public without face masks,
    • Prohibiting local governments from holding in-person public meetings or operating above certain capacity thresholds,
    • Prohibiting most residential evictions and utility shutoffs,
    • Prohibiting employers from taking certain actions that might be detrimental to the health or wellbeing of high-risk employees, and
    • Prohibiting local governments from terminating or withdrawing from a health district or combined city-county health department without authorization.

Waiving or Suspending Statutes

The governor also has the authority to issue emergency proclamations under RCW 43.06.220(2), which includes waiving or suspending statutory obligations or limitations.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, examples of this authority included, but were not limited to:

  • Waiving statutory language requiring public agencies to accept in-person public records requests,
  • Temporarily suspending the annual financial reporting deadline for local governments, and
  • Temporarily suspending the deadline for cities and towns to update their transportation improvement programs.

However, statutory waivers and suspensions under RCW 43.06.220(2) are limited to 30 days and can only be extended beyond 30 days by concurrent resolution of the legislature, or by the legislative leadership (majority and minority leaders of both houses) if the legislature is not in session.

An emergency proclamation issued under both RCW 43.06.220(1) and RCW 43.06.220(2) may require action from both the governor and the legislature (or its leadership) to extend all provisions of the proclamation beyond 30 days. If the legislature does not agree, the portion of the declaration issued under RCW 43.06.220(2) expires after 30 days while the portion issued under RCW 43.06.220(1) remains in effect until terminated by the governor.


City and County Emergency Authority

The Washington State Constitution, Article XI, Section 11 provides broad authority to cities, towns, and counties to act in the event of an emergency:

Any county, city, town or township may make and enforce within its limits all such local police, sanitary and other regulations as are not in conflict with general laws.

This is an affirmative grant of power and cities and towns can rely on this constitutional provision to exercise local police powers so long as the subject matter is local, the city or town is acting in a reasonable way, and the action is consistent with state law.

Chapter 38.52 RCW provides another source of emergency powers for “political subdivisions” (defined in RCW 38.52.010 as any county, city, or town). This includes the authority to:

  • Enter into contracts and incur obligations necessary to combat the disaster, protecting the health and safety of persons and property, and providing emergency assistance to the victims of such disaster.
  • Waive non-constitutional budget law limitations, requirements of competitive bidding and publication of notices, provisions pertaining to the performance of public work, entering into contracts, the incurring of obligations, the employment of temporary workers, the rental of equipment, the purchase of supplies and materials, the levying of taxes, and the appropriation and expenditures of public funds. RCW 38.52.070(2).
  • Command the services and equipment of as many citizens as necessary. The persons and equipment will be treated as if they were registered emergency workers.

These emergency powers are granted to the “executive head” of the jurisdiction as defined in RCW 38.52.010.

For cities and towns, the executive head is the mayor (in mayor-council cities/towns) or city manager (in council-manager cities). Alternatively, cities and towns may designate an executive head for emergency management purposes by ordinance.

For counties, the executive head is the county legislative authority (board of county commissioners or county council) or, for charter counties with an elected executive, the county executive.

RCW 38.52.100 authorizes cities and counties to accept the following from private individuals and corporations (as well as from the federal government via the state): services, equipment, supplies, materials, or funds by way of gift, grant or loan for the purpose of emergency management.

Cities and counties may have additional powers or requirements depending on their classification, charter, and/or local codes/policies.


Special Purpose District Emergency Authority

Special purpose districts – such as fire protection districts, public hospital districts, and water-sewer districts – do not have a general constitutional grant of emergency powers and must consult their enabling statutes.

Chapter 38.52 RCW (emergency management) does not directly apply to special purpose districts, as the definition of a “political subdivision” for purposes of that chapter is limited to a county, city, or town (see RCW 38.52.010). However, special purpose districts may participate in joint emergency management activities with other government entities through mutual aid or interlocal agreements (RCW 38.52.091) as well as comprehensive emergency management plans.

In addition, special purpose districts may call emergency meetings of the governing body, as described below, or waive competitive bidding processes for certain emergency expenditures. However, any emergency actions taken by a special purpose district must truly be a specific emergency faced by the district, and not a general emergency faced by society as a whole.


Emergency Public Meetings

The Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) recognizes that it may be necessary for a local government to call an emergency public meeting if the governing body needs to take expedited action in response to an emergency (see RCW 42.30.070 and RCW 42.30.080(4)).

The emergency meeting does not have to be held at the normal meeting location. If necessary, the presiding officer may provide for a different meeting site, a remote meeting without a physical location, or a meeting at which physical attendance by the public is restricted or prohibited.

In addition, the normal 24-hour notice for a special meeting is not required. However, the governing body should state on the record the reason for the short notice.


Public Health Emergencies

Public health emergencies have a number of unique laws and considerations. For more information, see our page on Public Health Emergencies.


Personnel Reporting to Work in a Declared Emergency

Below are selected examples of how local governments expect staff to work during disasters and emergencies.


Examples of Local Emergency Declarations

Below are selected examples of emergency declarations adopted by local governments in Washington State.

Severe Storms (Floods, Snow, Ice, Wind)

  • Clallam County Resolution No. 85-2021 (2021) — Emergency due to severe flooding, landslides, fallen trees, dangerous road conditions, power outages, and impassable roads
  • Issaquah Proclamation of Emergency Due to Floods (2022) — Mayor's emergency proclamation due to floods; authorizes city administrator/designee to use emergency power and enter into emergency contracts or obligations and provide regular reports to city council
  • Lacey Resolution No. 981 (2012) — Emergency due to snow and ice; resolution self-terminates after 30 days unless extended or terminated earlier by council
  • Snoqualmie Proclamation of Emergency Due to Winter Storm (2022) — Mayor's emergency proclamation due to heavy snow, ice, and potential flooding; includes city council resolution ratifying proclamation as well as subsequent mayoral proclamataion terminating emergency
  • West Richland Resolution No. 9-19 (2019) — Includes mayor's declaration of emergency due to heavy blowing snow and impassable roads, as well as city council's subsequent ratification of the proclamation
  • Whatcom County Proclamation of Emergency (2017) — County executive's declaration of emergency due to winter storms and heavy snow, requesting state assistance
  • Woodland Resolution No. 569 (2009) — Council’s declaration of emergency due to heavy snowfall, heavy rains, and threat of flooding. Also includes mayor’s declaration of civil emergency and delegation of authority to incident management team.
  • Yakima Resolution No. R-2022-009 (2022) — Includes mayor's proclamation of civil emergency due to snow, ice, and severe winter weather, as well as city council's subsequent ratification of the proclamation

Drought and Water Shortages

  • Port Townsend Ordinance No. 3131 (2015) — Declares emergency due to drought, possible water shortages, and fire hazard. Authorizes city manager to implement drought response plan, water conservation measures, and fire hazard abatement
  • Forks Notice of Emergency Water Restrictions (2016) — Notifying residents that the public works director has declared that a water emergency exists, and implementing mandatory water use restrictions
  • Startup Water District Water Emergency Letter (2015) — Notifying customers that the district has declared a water emergency due to drought and asking for voluntary water conservation steps

Emergency Burn Bans

  • Asotin County Ordinance No. 2021-21 (2021) — Establishes burn ban in unincorporated areas due to extreme fire danger and air quality levels, with exceptions for designated fire pits, approved fire rings, and approved propane and charcoal barbeques. Includes civil penalties and fines for violations.
  • Forks Emergency Burn Ban and Fireworks Ban (2021) — Emergency orders issued jointly by mayor and fire district chief declaring an immediate burn ban and fireworks ban due to record-setting temperatures, lack of precipitation, and high fire danger; expires when countywide burn ban is rescinded.
  • Klickitat County Resolution No. 05221 (2021) — Establishes emergency burn ban for one zone of unincorporated county due to high fire danger, with exceptions for residential barbecues and approved live fire training activities. Includes subsequent extension, map of impacted area, and wildland fire potential summary.
  • Okanogan County Resolution No. 73-2021 (2021) — Establishes burn ban in unincorporated areas due to fire danger; authorizes agricultural exemption for burning blight-infested trees. Authorizes local fire districts to issue recreational fire exemption permits. Includes permit forms plus later resolution terminating burn ban.

Emergency Fireworks Bans

  • For information on emergency fireworks bans, including examples and discussion of their legality, see our page on Fireworks Regulation.

Active Wildfires

  • Kittitas County Resolution No. 2017-143 (2017) — Declares emergency due to a fire threatening structures, activates emergency operation center, and requires overtime and other records to be submitted to county auditor at conclusion of emergency
  • Okanogan County Resolution No. 118-2020 (2020) — Declares emergency due to wildfires; includes subsequent resolution authorizing elected officials/department heads to close offices if they cannot provide adequate services due to infrastructure loss and to provide administrative leave to affected employees

Public Health Emergencies

Riots, Curfews, and Public Disorder

  • Issaquah Ordinance No. 2907 (2020) — Mayor's order imposing curfews for three nights in response to riots and looting; includes emergency city council ordinance making curfew violations a criminal misdemeanor. Does not apply to pre-authorized media members, essential businesses, or government/emergency workers.
  • Mercer Island Civil Emergency and Curfew Order (2020) — Mayor's order imposing curfew for one night in response to riots and looting and requires all brick-and-mortar businesses to close.
  • Redmond Civil Emergency and Curfew Order (2020) — Mayor's order imposing curfew every night until order is terminated in response to riots and looting; does not apply to pre-authorized media members or government/emergency workers. During non-curfew hours, police chief may limit lawful protests to designated public places.
  • Spokane Civil Emergency and Curfew Order (2020) — Mayor's order imposing downtown curfew for one night in response to riots and looting; does not apply to commuters, emergency responders, or people traveling to and from religious services. Other areas of city are not subject to curfew.

Earthquake


Terminating a Local Emergency Declaration

If the original emergency proclamation or resolution included a sunset provision — such as terminating at a specific date/time or when another entity (such as the county or the governor) terminates a corresponding state of emergency — then no further action is necessary. Once the designated time has passed, the emergency is automatically terminated.

However, if the original emergency proclamation or resolution did not specify an end date — or if the governing body wishes to terminate the emergency earlier than the original expiration date — the widespread practice is to issue a new proclamation or resolution rescinding the original emergency declaration. This will provide a clear audit/timing trail for the governing body's actions.

As always, check with your agency attorney for specific drafting advice.


Last Modified: February 23, 2024