The Henry County Office of Emergency Management is one of those entities you hope you never need, but grateful they are there if you ever have to.
Mat Schnepple, the OEM manager, has a plan for every emergency, along with the personnel and equipment to back it up.
You have a pandemic? Boom, call on your Health Department partners and start vaccination clinics in the parking lot of the local Community College. Need Personal Protective Equipment? Let the OEM handle bulk purchasing and distribution, eliminating the tendency to hoard. “You want 1000 masks? I can get you 300 today, and there will be more tomorrow if you still need them,” was the response the agencies received, assuring that every ambulance service, barracks of firefighters, hospital and clinic had what they needed to heal themselves. for their community, a one-stop shop without duplicating efforts.
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The goal of the OEM is to have a centralized control center in the event of a disaster. The members of the agency break down the event, analyze the necessary action phases, create a relevant action plan. They coordinate lines of effort to avoid duplication of work, maintain a centralized point for the dissemination of information, creating a managed workforce of professionals and volunteers.
With roots in civil defense dating back to the 1950s, the OEM has come a long way since then. In the 1970s the agency became known as the Emergency Services Disaster Association (ESDA) and morphed again in the early 2000s into the Emergency Management Association (EMA). The current name denotes a higher level of readiness than its predecessors. The OEM will partner with IDOT, FEMA, IEMA and Hazmat teams, with training and equipment for almost any incident that arises.
An agreement was reached with Stark County in 2018 allowing Henry County OEM to also provide emergency preparedness service for the county. This decision was groundbreaking, as it was the first time in Illinois that one agency represented two counties.
The agency’s humble beginnings were in the basement of Cambridge Prison. Equipment was housed throughout the county, in township buildings, fire stations, wherever there was room. The agencies of OEM Director Schnepple and Sheriff Loncka were the beneficiaries of the referendum approving a public safety tax. An agreement was reached in 2018 between them that sheriff’s staffing needs, jail, and sheriff’s department requirements would be the first expenses handled by this tax money, and OEMs would ask for their share when they were ready.
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With the pandemic and OEM’s major role in vaccination clinics, plans for the county and various communities to adhere to COVID mitigation measures and do their best to get back to normal, OEM has been very busy in 2020.
During an operations assessment for the first year of the pandemic, it was apparent that a larger, more central location was going to be required. The sheriff’s basement wasn’t going to work for much longer. Shortly thereafter, $9.4 million was made available to the county from federal COVID relief funds. Buying and designing a home for the OEM falls within the defined parameters for the use of funds.
Schnepple approached the county council and asked for $750,000 in funds, with an eye on a building on the south end of Kewanee that was previously an office building and bank, more recently housing the Department of Health. Henry County Health. Assuring the board that he could totally work within those numbers, Schnepple got to work.
The Henry-Stark Health Department, seeing the value in such an arrangement, donated the building that had been their clinic, just on the edge of Kewaneee on Route 78.
Stark County also provided financial assistance for the project through ARPA funding for its county.
The OEM acted as project manager, thus saving architectural costs. The elements of the building lent themselves perfectly to the new purpose, they made the most of “our time and the taxpayer’s money”, as Schnepple referred to the project.
The finished project houses a number of classrooms of varying sizes, to be used for staff and first-floor first-responder training, as well as the Henry County OEM offices. Further in the complex, there are many rooms intended to develop logistics in the event of a disaster. High speed internet is everywhere in the building, with three-phase redundancy.
A room monitors a variety of potential threats. NOAA radar and a variety of weather maps are on monitors hung on the wall, another monitor tracks activity at potential hazardous materials sites and nuclear power plants in northern Illinois. Traffic cameras monitor activity on highways crossing Henry County. The activity of the Ministry of Health is on another screen. A row of desks in the center of the room are ready for a laptop, with all the information needed to deal with a disaster in sight. Private rooms ring the “War Room”.
A nice addition of several “dormitories” for disaster victims who have no place to go for what could be the worst day of their lives. “Suppose a tornado leaves a household homeless, without rooms in local hotels and the family cannot be there for a day or two to help them. We have facilities to help house them,” Schnepple explained. . The quarters are spartan, but comfortable. A common room allows you to spend time with your family. A holdover from when the building was a medical clinic, repurposed to comfort victims.
The basement houses more storage and more classrooms. A working kitchen for staff who spend long days and nights. A staff room with recliners for a quick nap on a long day, or a place to read to the kids before the family comes home from a quick bedtime visit.
Much of Schnepple’s equipment is on site, loaded and ready to go in the event of a disaster. When moments count, the OEM is ready. Last winter, during a severe snowstorm, a community leader called Schnepple to tell him there was no power and a generator was needed to run the water tower. from the community. The mayor said each rental company told him it would take days before he could adapt, but the equipment supplier got to work and had a generator delivered in less than an hour.
The Kewanee site also houses the new regional training center. It is called “Regional” because it serves all Emergency Services and First Responders at Henry & Stark as well as the Regional Hazmat, Technical Rescue and Incident Management teams which cover all of Henry, Stark, Mercer and parts Bureau and Rock Island counties.
Mat Schnepple recently received the award for Emergency Management Agency of the Year, recognition from his peers in the field.