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MEMA Home > Programs> Communication> News > It's the Relationships: Coalition-Building in the Sunrise County

It's the Relationships: Coalition-Building in the Sunrise County


April 15, 2008


Washington County is almost 2,700 square miles in size; has 43 towns, 34 unorganized territories and two tribal governments. Perhaps Michael Hinerman, director of Washington County Emergency Management Agency said it best. “Things are busy.”

Since he started back in 2005, Hinerman has spent much of his time building a coalition in the county. “I’ve spent most of my time talking with people, building networks and providing our towns with information,” he said.

Assembling his county emergency management structure has been challenging. Hinerman runs the only one-man county-based emergency management operation in the state, but perseverance, he hopes, will pay off.

That patience is important, because emergency coordination in Washington County has a number of roadblocks. Money is tight, and the geography is not in their favor. “In just about every town here, everything in emergency services is volunteer driven,” Hinerman said. “Fire departments are completely volunteer. We have exactly two paid fire positions in the whole county.”

Emergency responders in Washington County give their time for free, and have many outside obligations. “People here are on-call, available when they are not at their regular jobs, or if they are lucky enough to be able to leave their job for a call,” Hinerman said.

Training for volunteer responders is tricky. “Requirements are getting tougher and tougher,” Hinerman said. “To be a fully rated firefighter, now it’s approximately 240 hours of training,” he said. “That’s six weeks of work, done on all volunteer time; six equivalent weeks of work, for no pay.”

And now, the federal government requires that all municipalities become compliant with the National Incident Management System (NIMS) to qualify for federal emergency management and homeland security grants. NIMS was designed to better integrate multi-agency response, offering a unified approach to incident management, and standardized command structures.

“Working with NIMS has been difficult here,” Hinerman said. “There are no paid emergency departments up here where people can take training while they are working an eight or ten hour shift. Every little bit of NIMS training has been done on the people’s own free time.” Most other Maine counties have some paid fire departments within their boundaries. According to Hinerman, “Washington County doesn’t.”

Even against these obstacles, Washington County has moved forward. “It’s a major accomplishment to have these fire and emergency medical departments trained in the basic elements of NIMS,” Hinerman said. “They are interested, and committing themselves to it. Little by little, the towns are becoming NIMS compliant.”

Hinerman brought a unique perspective to his current role; for 25 years, he was a property insurance adjuster handling 450 claims each year.

“I learned a long time ago, that every time you go to see somebody, they have had a problem,” he said. “Their car was wrecked, their house just burned town, their boat sunk – and when people are in stress, all they want to hear is the truth. They want it explained so they can understand it. They want to know the good and the bad.”

The same concept holds true in emergency management. “Our fire chiefs do not want to hear everything that the federal government is saying in five or six pages of instruction sheets. They need to know what the bottom line is,” Hinerman said. “If I call one up, take 20 minutes of his time explaining new training requirements and tell him he needs to take this, and this, and this – and it’s going to take two days with no pay, he’s going to be upset with me.” Instead, Hinerman decided to focus on the positive, but remains honest with the towns.

“I am telling people what needs to be done, and what the penalty is if it is not,” he said. “I’ve made a point about being blunt and honest about NIMS.” When a town resists the training or cannot find the time to take part, Hinerman tells the truth. “We cannot make the towns take the courses, but if they want to apply for a federal grant, they will be rejected until they become NIMS compliant,” he said.

The truth tactic has worked. “If I tell them the facts, and tell them I don’t know when I really don’t, they will trust me more in the end.”

Washington County Sheriff Donnie Smith said Hinerman’s work promoting interagency coordination paid off in January, when the Town of Marshfield dealt with a double murder. “Everything fell into place perfectly,” Smith said. “The Forest Service showed up with their Command Center and by the time the State Police Tactical Team arrived, everything was operational. They actually said this was the most organized scene they had ever walked into.” That, Smith said, is a result of joint efforts of all local and state agencies involved. “That is all coordinated by emergency management. That is the hub of all this.”

For Hinerman, it all came down to communication. “I am helping our towns to understand our emergency management role,” he said. “We are a small county; we do not have the trucks or equipment for them, but I do have the contacts, and we will always help find them what they need.”

So far, his efforts have been successful. “We have established communications among the towns,” he said. “We are doing this cooperatively; we are fostering relationships so that together we can get things done in an emergency so that people don’t suffer.”

—Derek Mitchell



Washington County EMA


Last update: 07/20/10