DCNR is well equipped to handle emergencies on public lands. From suppressing wildfires to search and rescue operations, to flooding and major storm incidents, staff from DCNR are trained, organized, and willing to respond.
This not only applies to emergencies on state park and forest lands, but other places across the state and country. DCNR’s Bureau of Forestry answers the call for help for wildfires on all lands in the commonwealth and large-scale emergencies; and has been doing so for nearly 50 years.
Now, these staff can include responding to a pandemic among their experiences.
One way DCNR is assisting during this time is through a partnership with the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA).
Because many DCNR staff, especially in the Bureau of Forestry, are specially trained and nationally qualified in Incident Command System (ICS) -- a standardized structure that allows for organized and coordinated response to an emergency -- they regularly assist PEMA with incident management during emergencies.
The first incidents where DCNR played a major role in responses were the result of Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee in 2011.
During that time, DCNR had three Incident Management Teams spread across the state.
DCNR and PEMA often do joint trainings to make sure everyone from both agencies’ is on the same page.
It is rare for a large incident or a large training to occur and not have both agencies respond.
With the unprecedented workload and demand for services responding to COVID-19, PEMA reached out to DCNR staff for help.
In response, between 40 to 50 Bureau of Forestry staff members have answered the call (some more than once), to help PEMA with needed supplies, assisting local authorities, and supporting two COVID-19 testing sites.
Delivering Needed Supplies
In this pandemic, the need for supplies is critical. DCNR staff have assisted PEMA in a storage supply warehouse in Harrisburg and have served as truck drivers delivering personal protective equipment and other needed supplies to counties and hospitals.
Joe Walker and Aaron Troutman delivered masks, gloves, and other personal protective equipment from PEMA to Kensington Hospital in inner city Philadelphia. The delivery happened at the end of March, at the onset of the pandemic in Pennsylvania.
Joe recalled at the time there were still a lot of unknowns with the virus and they were a little apprehensive going into the center of the pandemic, but they were both happy to be helping.
Spending most of their time in the woods, they found it a little challenging and interesting driving a PEMA truck in the heart of the city and dropping off the supplies.
While at a stop sign, some local residents asked about their supplies delivery and thanked Joe and Aaron for their help.
Assisting Local Authorities
Staff also have helped with emergency assistance to local authorities by staffing PEMA’s Commonwealth Response Coordination Center and Philadelphia’s Emergency Operations Center.
These centers support local COVID-19 response efforts with people, equipment, special response teams, and subject matter expertise.
Three staff served at the Commonwealth Response Coordination Center and three served at the Philadelphia Emergency Operations Center.
“I’m proud to be part of an agency and an organization that can be a significant partner in helping to bring this crisis to an end in Pennsylvania,” said Moshannon District Forest Manager John Hecker, who served at the Commonwealth Response Coordination Center and also as an incident commander at one of the testing sites.
“Our years of training and experience at DCNR and nationally in some of our nation’s largest wildfires and natural disasters is what makes us useful at this time. No one likes to see a large disaster; but being able to help at times like this makes all the training and time spent preparing worthwhile.”
Supporting Testing Sites
During the initial response, the majority of DCNR staff resources went to providing support to COVID-19 testing sites in Montgomery and Luzerne counties -- some of the hardest hit areas.
Seven staff went to the Montgomery County testing site, and 21 staff provided support to the Luzerne County testing site.
DCNR representatives delivered needed supplies to testing sites, including transporting trailers and water; and supported the coordination and safety of many community partners through planning, public information, and logistics.
More than 10,000 people have been tested at the at the Montgomery and Luzerne testing sites combined.
Something that really struck DCNR’s Shawn Turner while being on assignment at the Luzerne County testing center was seeing the compassion of those working on the site to the public they were serving. When asked why he wanted to help at the testing centers
Turner said that he felt that it was important to help our state partners in this time of need.
Continued Growth in Emergency Response
The relationship between PEMA and DCNR continues to grow as a result of the training, experience, and willingness of DCNR staff to answer the call for help -- even in the uncharted waters of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The commonwealth response to COVID-19 has illustrated how a diverse group of staff from a wide range of agencies can come together and work side-by-side for the benefit of the citizens of Pennsylvania,” said PEMA Director Randy Padfield. “In this instance, hours of planning, training, and exercises provided a seamless transition to multi-agency operations in a variety of missions across the state.”
But more than the training and experience, is the continued willingness to serve and represent the commonwealth in dangerous and emergency situations.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is different than other public safety threats, and its invisibility makes it more insidious than the wildfires and other emergencies our staff regularly assist with. Our DCNR teams are very essential and helpful to PEMA, which is due to their training and dedication,” said DCNR Secretary Cindy Adams Dunn. “I am very proud of their willingness to step up at this time which takes their public service to another level.”