Office of Emergency Management

It has been awhile since I have set down and done an interview with someone, so I thought it was time.

In all fairness, as many of you have no doubt noticed over time, I must disclose, I am a weather nut.  Particularly severe storm season.  So, when I emailed Emergency Manager Mike Honigsberg and he agreed to an interview, I was pumped.  I was even more pumped that the interview was to coincide with a test of our local storm siren system.  What I wasn’t counting on, was overcast skies.

I arrived at the Office of Emergency Management expecting to see Mr. Honigsberg in a decently sized room.  What I found was, Mr. Honigsberg in a room with over a dozen computer screens, radios charging on top of filing cabinets, tables piled with maps, and all of it crammed into a space that is probably equal to my office at my house.

 

Route 60:  Well, it doesn’t look like we will get to test the sirens today! (for safety reasons, they only test on days when the skies are clear so people don’t get the wrong idea)

Mike Honigsberg:  No, unfortunately not.  But it’s pretty simple.  All we have to do is key it into this radio.  We can also do it from the radios over there (points in another direction of his small room), and the 911 Center can also activate them.  But the neat thing is, I can use the radio to activate them from home if I need to do so in an emergency.  In fact, I could activate them from Woodward if I needed to do so.  It’s good to have the redundancy in different ways to fire them.

R60:  Tell me a little bit about the operations here.

Mike:  On a severe storm day, I put advisories out early in the morning.  I get up at 4am and I put a little deal out on what I think is going to happen after reading all the information that is out at the time.  Once I get into the office, I’ll send a page out over our paging network to our spotter network (emergency service personnel) with an advisory of what to expect.  If it looks like I’m going to activate the center, I’ll send a page out to let them know that.  They’ll come in and we will do a briefing, I’ll make assignments and positions and then we go from there.  Then it’s a waiting game.  We’ll activate spotters by quadrants.  We don’t activate the whole county.  There’s no sense in doing that.

R60:  How many spotters do we have?

Mike: We have around 250 trained spotters.   Now, that doesn’t mean that doesn’t mean everyone is out there at the same time.  It kinda depends on who is available on a given day.  On high risk days, generally everyone is available.  They’ll be on alert standby and we update them through the day, kinda let them know what we’re thinking, let them know what the National Weather Service is thinking, what’s really happening out there, and then we kind of adjust accordingly.  They’re all emergency personnel.  I like to use them because we can talk to each other.  They’re information is more credible and they come to training.  When Brian O’Rourke took over as Chief of Police, we implemented the police into this.  I asked him what it would take to get a few guys because I needed more eyes.  He asked how many I wanted and I said 10-15 and he gave me 15.  It was great.

 

R60:  Do you rely solely on the National Weather Service or the spotters, or what?

Mike:  We work very closely with the National Weather Service.  I get a lot of my training.  Yeah, I can issue my own warnings and stuff.  But any information that comes into my office goes straight to them anyway.  So, they may see it that way or they may not.  I have to cover my rear and do what I need to do.  I have guys that have been with me all 17 years I’ve done this.  If they told me Godzilla was walking across the back 40, I’d believe them.  They’ve built that kind of credibility with me.  If people aren’t professional and don’t tell the truth about what’s going on, it takes an act of God to earn that respect back.  I’ve let 4 people go for not giving accurate reports.  We verify everything.  I’m in this for public safety and not ratings.  The tv stations are out of control.

 

R60:  I have my favorite tv guy.  And it’s Gary England.  The others are alarmists.  Like Mike “The Hair” Morgan.

Mike:  Don’t get me going on that one.   (Laughter)  I don’t depend on tv for my decision making.

R60:  I recently took the National Weather Service Training Course online.  They offered it through a webinar and I was able to learn quite a bit of stuff I didn’t know.  A lot of it, as an Oklahoman, I did know….

Mike:  Yeah, I’m certified to give those classes from the National Weather Service and then I also have my own class.  I had a couple of departments that decided to the webinar and didn’t tell me.  You have to go through your Emergency Manager and let them know in advance that you are going to do it, so they know.  They didn’t, so I can’t give them credit for it.

R60:  Rick Smith from the Weather Service said they were thinking of doing more advanced classes as well.

Mike:  Yeah, Rick and I talked about that over the winter.  There’s a great need there for advanced training.  You know, they’ve started consolidating classes, so I think they will start to see lower attendance at a lot of the actual classes.  We used to always have the highest attended class they would give.  Every year, we’d have the largest class without fail.

R60:  You carry a dim view of storm chasers?

Mike:  No.  Not real dim. Some of them are out there for the betterment.  But some aren’t.  They get in the way and that’s where I have a big problem with those people because…you know we have some deputies in this county and there whole job is to nail those people who are out there getting in the way.  If someone goes out and just wants to get a picture of a tornado, they have no clue about storm dynamics.  They have no clue.  All they know is they want to get out there and take that picture.  How do they know they don’t have another wall cloud setting up back behind them?  They’re not paying attention because they’re not trained.  And even some of the storm chasers out there are not as highly trained as they lead you to believe.  They go out there and put 1800 antennas on top of their vehicle to look cool not really know what the hell they are doing. I hate to put it that way, but that’s the truth.  There’s a few of them out there, that when they call us in here, I’ll listen to them.  But I will still verify the information because I don’t know if they attend training anywhere.  They don’t attend ours.

R60:  Would you listen to Reed Timmer?

Mike:  Who is that?

R60:  Have you ever seen The Discovery Channel’s “Storm Chasers” show?

Mike:  Occasionally.

R60:  (I give him a detailed description of Reed Timmer, who well educated in meteorology from OU and does some extreme stuff, but also does research)

Mike:  They’d have to come in talk to me and convince me that there stuff is credible.  Some research is credible and some is not.

R60:  Show me some of the toys.

Mike:  (Pulls up a monitor.  That has a radar system on it.  Ironically, it is the same system that I use for my own personal information and to relay information on Route 60)  This has all kinds of different windows and it has a loop function.

R60:  I love the loop function!  Using that function a few nights ago (this interview was conducted in May), there was a storm east of Cherokee and it was tornado warned.  Based on the trajectory, I saw that it could have impacted Medford or Wakita.  Nobody (mainly tv) had mentioned that.  I put it out on our Facebook page that those people needed to be watching this storm because it could be coming at them if they live in those areas.  Sure enough, I think 20 minutes later it was hopping, skipping, and jumping around Medford.

Mike:  I’ll warn you to be very careful about what you put on your deal like that.  If people are utilizing that and you’re wrong it could bite you.  Be really careful.  For instance, the information I put out, the government backs me up on it.  Why?  Because I’m trained and certified.  If people rely on a non-certified person, it can get tricky.  Be careful.

R60:  I’ve always told people and hope they abide by it….don’t use just one source for your information…

Mike:  Yeah, but you’d be surprised at how many people do rely on just one source.

R60:  And also, I just said, “Be aware of this storm.”  I didn’t issue my own warning or say, “there’s a tornado bearing down on you….” or something like that.

Mike:  Right.  You know, we were listening to some of the stuff that night and some of the terminology people were using was so out of line and thus, I am going out to train these guys again on terminology.

R60:  A for instance?

Mike:  “We’ve got a funnel on the ground!”

R60:  (Busts out laughing)  C’mon!  That’s “Weather 101” right there.  You can’t have a funnel on the ground.  If it’s on the ground it’s a tornado.

Mike:  “We’ve got scud clouds on the gound now!”

R60:  No! No!

Mike:  All this kind of stuff see?  That’s telling me that untrained people are saying things over the air they shouldn’t be saying.  People on scanners are listening to this stuff too.  Terminology is very important.  I believe in doing it right.

He goes on about showing me some of the radar toys and he teaches me quite a bit about the capabilities.   For a time, because I’m a weather nut, I must have seemed like a kid in a candy store to him.  I was so enthralled.  I nearly forgot I was interviewing Mr. Honigsberg and felt more like I was in a college level radar class.  We discussed super-cells and hail.   Then I asked a question that pertained to Enid’s infamous tornadoes.

 

R60:  Correct me if I’m wrong, but when I tornado drops, does the cell not usually move to the right?

Mike:  Not always!  Remember the tornadoes we had when the Expo Center was hit?

R60:  Of course.

Mike:  Those were left turning storms.  We had 4 in the county that night.  All turned left.

R60:  That’s rare!

Mike:  Very rare.  But at the same time, that storm had been tracking clear across the state.  It wasn’t even severe.  It went from just a heavy thunderstorm to tornadic in just one volume scan!  The guys on the ground, before radar ever updated were telling me that there was a wall cloud and seemed to be intensifying.  They could see it getting itself together.  The wall cloud was down south and west of Vance.  It was in the Waukomis/Drummond spotter area, it began to get itself together and was intensifying.  It was moving straight east and then all of a sudden it decided to turn left.

R60:  My last question is about you.  How did you get into this?

Mike:  When I went to college back in the early 1970’s, I got involved with emergency services up there.  I worked for an ambulance service.  We were also spotters for Alva.  Left Alva, came back to Enid and got into the oilfield…..weather has always fascinated me anyway.  Ever since I was little.  Olin Unruh, who was a county commissioner back in the mid ’90s came to me and asked me if I would take over the county position.  I said, “sure…”  The radar data we had then was not that great and getting things was extremely difficult.  There was a program down at the University of Oklahoma using telecommunications.  I got involved with that.  It was 14 days of hell.  We were the very first class and they crammed everything they could at us.  They threw meteorology at us, trigonometry at us, they threw all sorts of stuff at us.  They realized that there were some that were just never going to be able to grasp all of that information.  I had a headache for two weeks.  But that’s sort of how I like to learn.  I like to be overwhelmed.  I learn best under pressure.  Once I graduated out of that class, they gave us a computer, they paid for our internet, which at that time was dial-up.  All we had was a basic radar picture.  It’s just all evolved from that.  Now, we have radars with all sorts of bells and whistles.  I have to go back and get re-certified each year.  If you don’t keep up with the training, you don’t get access to the stuff.  Which is good.  I have had great access with the rural departments.  And up until 2 years ago, that was our spotter network.  I’m a part of the Northwest group, we get together for meetings and training once a month.  I’m a state certified Emergency Manager.  I just enjoy it.  Not everybody in life gets to do what you really like to do for a job.  And yeah, it can be overwhelming.  It’s not just storms we have to worry about.  All sorts of disasters…

R60:  After floods and tornadoes, what are Enid’s most prone to be hit with?

Mike:  Plane crashes, wind events, chemical spills, terrorist attacks.  Think about what happened in Medford.  What if someone wanted to hit us east of town?  That would be big.  If that thing goes, it’s a small hydrogen bomb. Nuclear material comes through the state.  It’s not advertised and they usually have armed escorts.  If you ever come up on a disabled truck and there men with guns protecting it.  Turn around and go the other way.  They will not hesitate to pull the trigger.  There is a lot of things out there that we train for.  There are things we train for that we don’t talk about because it would scare everybody.  But that’s the nature of our job.

R60:  Earthquakes?

Mike:  Yeah, that’s a new one for us.  We need to be prepared for something like that.  But in the end, it shakes the ground.  Not a whole lot to prepare for really.  Just pray it doesn’t knock something over on top of you.  People talk about the San Andreas fault, but I’m more worried about the New Madrid Fault. It changed the course of the Mississippi River.

R60:  Yeah, it flowed the wrong way for a couple of days or something.

Mike:  Yeah.  If there is ever a country splitting earthquake it will come from there.  People talk about fraccing.  I get so mad about that.  I know what happens when you frac.  People who complain about it generally don’t.  Now, if you don’t do your cementing properly through your surface casing and on down when you do you long-string casing, I don’t see how it can get into the water table.  Fraccing, depending on the zone, is 4 or 5 thousand feet down.  Then you frac the formation.  What they’re not saying though is the pump water under pressure.  What do you put in there to keep it from closing off?  Sand!  You’re not really hurting anything.  Now if someone is doing it somewhere on shallower wells, yeah, but I don’t think it’s causing earthquakes.

R60:  How do you think your center compares to others statewide?

Mike:  I think we are ahead of some.  But at the same time, there are some smaller jurisdictions, that they have a large area that they can work in.  They have places to stage and store supplies.  Enid and Garfield County is way behind the curve when it comes to the ability to stockpile resources.  We are WAY behind.  Woodward is light years ahead of us.  Grant County is ahead of us.  But we are light years ahead of them in the way we do are networking.

R60:  Have you always been here at the Fire Department?

Mike:  We need to move real bad.  I’ve got stuff I’m having to keep at home because I don’t have a place for it.  Indoors, I really need an area twice the size I have and I need some outdoor space to stage stuff.  We need to be a regional resource center.  Right now, Guymon, Clinton, and Woodward are already pre-setup with assets from the state.  We have no assets from the state because I literally have no place to put them.

R60:  Assets?

Mike:  Generators, lights, MRE’s, water, I have no where to put this stuff…

R60:  So, you’re telling me that if we had a major natural disaster and….(cuts off)

Mike:  We ARE in trouble.  Period.  We are going to have to wait on stuff to get here.  Why?  Because that’s just the way it is unfortunately.  Now, I’m tossing around an idea of maybe staging stuff around at the rural fire departments and then maybe try to find someplace locally that I can stage some stuff too.

R60:  This is mind-blowing.

Mike:  I don’t even have an actual EOC.  Emergency Operations Center.  This (is current spot) can’t be everything all at the same time.  I’m not looking for extravagance, I’m looking for space.  I have a problem where this is located.  Heck, I have a problem with the location of 911.  What happens if a fuel tanker has an accident out front?  That’s gone AND this is gone….then we are completely screwed.  Now, I do have some assets in other locations that I will not mention that would allow us to operate….but we would not be as efficient.  I would prefer to have a hardened facility off the beaten path.  It would also be nice to have this be a regional hub.  If other jurisdictions needed to, they could come HERE and run operations.  And we could assist them.

R60:  Is this a department in and of itself?

Mike:  I’ve been a volunteer for the county for 17 years.  With the City of Enid, it’s a paid position and has been for going on 7 years. We as a county are behind the times and we need to change this asap. Now, Mr. Benson understands.  This position was part-time when he came aboard.  He made it full-time.  The County Commissioners are now starting to understand how much is done for the county.  But I have NO help.  I’m responsible for the County Emergency Operation Plan.  I’m responsible for the County Emergency Operation Plan.  I’m responsible for…..

R60:  Could you use the help?

Mike:  I could always use the help.  But right now, it’s volunteer help.  I have a Deputy Director on the Enid side.  They pay an Enid Police Captain to be my help.  But he has no training and I won’t generally see him until we activate.  I have a county deputy who is a volunteer.  He’ll do the training and he’ll make the time when I make him aware of it.  He’s retired.  He can do that.  But I don’t see these people very often.  Not until we activate.  It’s extremely hard to set up a volunteer program when I have no help coordinating it.  I can’t go on vacation because I can’t depend on anyone to step in….I’ve created a monster.  And I did it myself.  Facebook, Nixle, the radio, with email updates….people are now used to getting this stuff.  What if I was on vacation and we get nailed by a tornado and nobody was here to put out a warning?  I’m a what if type person.  You have to think of this stuff.  I need to find the perfect young person who wants to learn all this stuff the way it’s done.  I need them to want to make it grow and come up with new ideas.  What if I died tomorrow?  All this would go away!  That’s bad.  I’ve worked 17 years to build it up with our group of volunteers.

R60:  Wow.  I mean, just wow.

Mike:  A paid assistant would be great.

R60:  I can imagine.  I’m shocked you don’t have one.

 

Editorial:  That last part of the interview was a real eye-opener.  And folks, while I could tell that Mike was appreciative that he at least had the space that he had (thanks to the Enid Fire Department!), I can not understate how small his center was.  There has got to be some open space somewhere that we could get him located that he has enough room for his EOC and to store at least some of the assets he needs.  I like his idea of spreading things around the county to help response times.

After visiting with Mike a few times, I can honestly tell you this is one guy who earns his pay.  I had no idea really the scope of his job, but he is probably one of the most unappreciated public servants we have.  I’ll admit in the past, I’ve played Monday morning QB with some of his decisions.  However, now that I see his perspective, I can honestly say I’d just about trust anything he says.  Because if he says it, it’s been verified.

As a result of this interview, Mike and Route 60 have worked together to create a page on our site about “Emergency  Preparedness.”  You can that page here:  Emergency Preparedness

Also, I’d like to remind people of our article that guest writer Kayte Anton wrote about being prepared for an emergency.  It was a good article.  Thanks again Kayte!  A Culture of Preparedness

 

Photo Gallery of the Office of Emergency Management: