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Preparing for and Responding to Emergencies: 2019 Legislation

Preparing for and Responding to Emergencies: 2019 Legislation

September is Emergency Preparedness Month and October 17 is the Great Washington ShakeOut for earthquake survival. I thought it would be a good time to look at a few new bills adopted by the Washington Legislature that involve how local governments and law enforcement respond during active emergencies. Local governments should review their policies and procedures to be sure they can effectively and appropriately respond to emergency situations as required by law.

Notice of School Lockdown or Evacuation: SB 5514

RCW 28A.320.125 requires public schools and school districts to develop safe school plans and procedures to respond to natural and man-made disasters. SB 5514 amends the statute to place a new obligation on local first responder agencies. If the agency notifies a school of the need to evacuate or lockdown, then the agency must also notify every other known school in the vicinity — both public and private — for which an evacuation or lockdown appears reasonably necessary.

In other words, first responder agencies should add a step to their emergency response procedures involving schools that require the incident commander to determine whether other schools in the vicinity also need to be notified. Of course, the agencies will also need to keep an updated list and map of all known public and private schools within their response areas.

Note that the first responder agencies and their employees cannot be held liable for failure to make the notice unless the agency or its employees “acted with willful disregard.”

Seizure of Resources and Labor: HB 1147

During active declared emergencies, the government has the power to commandeer the service and equipment of as many citizens as considered necessary to respond to the disaster (RCW 38.52.110). 

HB 1147 amends the statute to prohibit the seizure or confiscation of “a vehicle, fuel, food, water, or other essential materials” brought into the area by a “first informer broadcaster.” A “first informer broadcaster” is defined as an individual who:

 (a) Is employed by, or acting pursuant to a contract under the direction of, a broadcaster; and (b)(i) Maintains, including repairing or resupplying, transmitters, generators, or other essential equipment at a broadcast station or facility; or (ii) provides technical support services to broadcasters needed during a period of proclaimed emergency.

The exemption in RCW 38.52.010(14) ensures that the media is able to report on the disaster without the concern that resources necessary to do that job may be confiscated by emergency responders.

At the same time, HB 1147 ensures that federal, state, and local agencies cannot be held liable for facilitating access of a first informer broadcaster to an area affected by the emergency or disaster (RCW 38.52.115).

Continuity of Government: SB 5012

Currently, the Continuity of Government Act, Chapter 42.14 RCW, provides that in the event of an “enemy attack” that reduces the number of county commissioners available for duty or causes the executive head of a city or town to be unavailable, the available members have full power to act (See RCW 42.14.040 and RCW 42.14.050). This emergency process temporarily circumvents the regular process of succession of power through election or appointment.

SB 5012 seeks to expand the Continuity of Government Act so that it can also apply in the event of a “catastrophic incident,” which is defined in the bill as:

any natural or human-caused incident, including terrorism and enemy attack, that results in extraordinary levels of mass casualties, damage, or disruption severely affecting the population, infrastructure, environment, economy, or government functions.

However, before this statutory change can go into effect, the Washington State Constitution must also be amended. The Legislature also passed SJR 8200, which directs the secretary of state to place the proposed amendment to Article II, section 42 on the ballot for the November 2020 general election. The amendment would add “catastrophic incident” to the type of emergency situations where the legislature can provide for temporary succession of powers and duties of public officers outside the election or appointment process. Currently, the constitution only allows the legislature to do this for an “enemy attack.”

SB 5012, if it becomes effective, would also amend the definition of “enemy attack,” which currently only includes acts of “warfare” against the United States. The new definition would redefine an “attack” to be any act of “aggression” against the United States, not just “warfare.” The new definitions would also exclude any event “resulting from individuals exercising their rights, under the first amendment, of freedom of speech, and of the people to peaceably assemble.”

Local governments should be prepared to update their continuity plans in the event the constitutional amendment passes at the next general election.

Final Thoughts

For more information about the Great ShakeOut and other disaster planning, see our recent MRSC blog post: Shake It Up: Local Governments and Earthquake Preparedness.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

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About Sarah Doar

Sarah Doar joined MRSC in September 2018.

Most recently, she served as a Civil Deputy Prosecuting Attorney for Island County. At Island County, Sarah advised on many aspects of government business, including compliance with public record and opening meeting laws. She also defended the County in Growth Management Act and Land Use litigation. Prior to moving to Washington, Sarah practiced land use, environmental, and appellate law in Florida for over eight years.

Sarah holds a B.A. in Biology from Case Western Reserve University and a J.D. with a certificate in environmental and land use law from Florida State University College of Law.