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Ashland hires its first ever emergency management coordinator

Kelly Burns has been hired as Ashland's first emergency management coordinator.
Kelly Burns has been hired as Ashland's first emergency management coordinator.

Ashland recently hired Kelly Burns, whose goal is to prepare the city for future disasters like wildfires and create a local Emergency Operations Center. He previously worked for the Ashland Fire and Rescue Department for 32 years. JPR’s Jane Vaughan spoke with Burns about his plans for this new position.

Jane Vaughan: So tell me a little bit about what this new role entails.

Kelly Burns: My primary role is to help the city, the citizens and the agencies and businesses in town be ready for like big events. Of course, we can reference Almeda, which I think is fresh in everyone's mind. And it's to help support those that are out on the frontlines handling things. But also to support citizens in case like they are not totally sure which way they should be going or where shelter or refuge is going to be. And so my role is to stand up emergency operation centers. And so having people trained in positions that can fill those roles, like that's my job to try to get that happening. And then to do more public outreach and education and employee outreach and education so that everybody that needs the city of Ashland to be thriving and functioning can feel like they're more prepared when we have, you know, bigger events.

JV: So how are you and the city preparing for this upcoming fire season and for any potential future disasters?

KB: So my primary goal from day one is to get us a working Emergency Operations Center. And we're doing something unique to this area, as well as I think in the state, where we partnered with Southern Oregon University, the city's partnered with them, and with the Ashland School District. And so we're all kind of combining our efforts. And so there's going to be a site at SOU that we're going to use as a standing Emergency Operations Center. And so I'm helping to build that and facilitate the changes that need to happen. Think of like a NASA launch room only you've got people that are helping manage the operation that's going on out in the field. And then the other piece is I need to help train people up so that they're good at incident command system roles, which are all part of that Emergency Operations Center function. One of my third big pieces is public outreach and getting people educated on like, hey, this is your Ashland evacuation plan. And here's your emergency messaging system that you should be signed up for and receiving alerts so that you know what's going on in your town and a little bit better communication with what to do in the event of the emergency.

JV: We know that some of the emergency notification systems in the Almeda Fire did not work as they were intended to. Is that something that you're thinking about now in your new role?

KB: The challenge remains no matter what system we're using, and from an emergency management standpoint that I'm in, is how do you get people, you know, a reliable, accurate message and shorten that timeframe from when the fire's happening and we understand the path it's going to go, to make sure that people get that message. We're trying to shorten that up.

JV: So, the Almeda Fire is still fresh in everyone's mind. We're coming up on wildfire season. This, you know, seems like a really crucial role, the new emergency management coordinator in Ashland. What is at stake for you with this new position?

KB: I was the first on scene of the Almeda Fire, calling out assignments to my limited number of resources that I had with the fire department. And just seeing how immediately overmatched we were to stop the advancing fire, with the 30 and 40 mile an hour gusts of wind and all of the trees and fuel and homes. And as a responder, to be there and have to respond immediately to any life threat, any time somebody said, 'Hey, I'm stuck in my house, and I need rescue,' and all of my resources are gone and I have nobody left because everyone's in the fight. Being able to redirect those resources. And there needs to be more effort towards helping the citizens and the people in the valley. How to get them better prepared, how to get them ready for it, how to get them used to how scary it is so that they can they also know that they can stand and face these things. So I'm hoping that whatever pushes and energy I can spend as the emergency management coordinator brings some community hope, some resilience back to everybody and that the next scary events won't feel as scary. Or even if they do, we'll still be able to stand up and face them.

JV: Kelly, thank you for speaking with me today.

KB: Thanks, Jane. It's been a real pleasure.

Jane Vaughan is a regional reporter for Jefferson Public Radio. Jane began her journalism career as a reporter for a community newspaper in Portland, Maine. She's been a producer at New Hampshire Public Radio and worked on WNYC's On The Media.