When disaster strikes, it takes the right people, with the right training, to mount a swift response. With dozens of hazard types in South Carolina, including emerging risks exacerbated by climate change, effective planning and preparedness have become more critical than ever.
Enter: the South Carolina Emergency Management Division, the state agency at the frontline of all state-led crisis response operations. Charged with enabling the preparation for response and recovery from state emergencies, the division’s ultimate mission in an emergency is to save lives, reduce human suffering and minimize property loss. The task is colossal and requires the state’s best planners and leaders.
Kim Stenson leads the state division and has dedicated his entire career to enabling readiness. As SCEMD director, he and the division team have managed more than $2 billion in response operations, including unprecedented rainfall during October 2015; Hurricanes Matthew, Irma, Florence, and Dorian; and, most recently, the state’s expansion of medical care facilities at the onset of the covid-19 pandemic.
Before his time with the state’s emergency team, Stenson served as an infantry officer in the U.S. Army. Over his 20-year military career, he organized several training exercises across the globe and served during the First Gulf War. Stenson credits much of the success in his current role to the hands-on experience and training he gained in the military.
“When you work in an infantry battalion, you develop exercises all the time to train your Soldiers. At one point, I was also part of a team organizing exercises for NATO,” he said. “Here at the South Carolina Emergency Management Division, that’s what we do: we plan, we train and we exercise. I always want to make sure our team is as ready as possible.”
Comprised of over 100 personnel, SCEMD is broken up into several functional areas, including preparedness, logistics, recovery and operations. The division also has a dozen local officers — “boots on the ground” as Stenson puts it — located across the state to assist counties. According to him, it is partnerships with counties, state divisions, and other government or local agencies that often determine the success of an emergency response.
“Partnerships are a cornerstone in emergency management. Building strong relationships, understanding capabilities and regularly reinforcing responsibilities can define whether you’re going to be successful or not. We take this very seriously in South Carolina.”
To forge and maintain active partnerships, Stenson’s team hosts year-round training and exercises, ensuring local, state and federal agencies are prepared to collaboratively and seamlessly respond to a suite of potential hazards, including nuclear disasters, dam failures, earthquakes, wildfires and floods. On average, the division holds one specialized course per week.
“We are busy all year long with annual updates, workshops, new initiatives and training,” Stenson said. “We also always hold an annual full-scale exercise to integrate all our partners and ensure we’ve filled all the gaps.”
Hurricanes, which are South Carolina’s number one hazard, constitute a significant portion of the division’s planning, Stenson said. While operations slow down some at the beginning of the summer in a “calm before the storm,” the state’s emergency management team closely monitors storm systems and ensures all key partners are ready to respond to a crisis.
Stenson’s team and the Charleston District’s Emergency Management branch have fostered a strong partnership, thanks to routine communication and joint training. The relationship, he said, has paid dividends for the state during past hurricane recovery operations and, most notably, in the identification of potential alternate care sites for covid-19 patients. While no sites were ultimately constructed, the Corps’ technical expertise was critical to site planning.
“Identifying alternate care sites, putting together plans, it was something we had never done before, and it was a huge lift. The Corps played a great role in this, and I’m not sure we would have put it all together as quickly as we had without the Corps.”
According to Stenson, emergency management is always looking for the best and brightest. For aspiring emergency response officers, he suggests pursuing a formal degree in the field, volunteering to gain as much first-hand experience as possible, and developing a “well-rounded” foundation in planning, communications and logistics.
“Emergency management gets right to the heart of preserving public life and safety. It’s challenging. You never know day-to-day what’s going to happen. It’s this critical work, and it has a direct impact on people’s lives.”