At the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s Office of Emergency Management, teamwork makes the dream work.
That’s what outgoing Borough Emergency Manager Dan Nelson and Borough Community and Fiscal Projects Manager Brenda Ahlberg made clear on Thursday, when they sat down with the Clarion in their emergency response center in Soldotna.
“OEM and emergency management in general cannot work without relationships,” Nelson said Thursday.
Ahlberg agreed, adding that OEM’s relationships with other borough agencies has been an asset throughout the borough’s response to the pandemic.
“Because of the relationships that have been (previously) established, in the borough areawide response to this pandemic the functionality was probably better than … if those relationships hadn’t been established,” Ahlberg said. “We can all get on a Zoom meeting, and we know each other, (and) we know our capabilities right out the door.”
Nelson, who started working at the borough in 2006, informed the borough earlier this year that he would be stepping down as emergency manager, effective in mid-August. Ready to take up the reins when Nelson leaves is Ahlberg, who has been part of OEM since 2009 and a resource for the Alaska Division of Forestry since 2010.
While working in emergency management, she’s spent 12 years as part of command staff and has responded to wildland fires nationwide. It is those experiences, Ahlberg said, that have informed her response to the support need of the borough.
OEM is the borough department responsible for coordinating response efforts after emergency disasters, like floods, fires, earthquakes and the COVID-19 pandemic, during which Nelson helped coordinate large-scale vaccination clinics.
Overall, Nelson said that in reflecting on his time at the borough, disaster events have happened more often in recent years.
“It seems like events are becoming more common,” Nelson said.
Ones that stick out to him include the 2012 flood in Seward, which he said helped OEM learn to bolster its emergency communications operations, and wildfires in 2014, 2015 and 2019, where he said he saw communities pull together to support emergency response staff.
“Something I really remember about those fires was banners and people wanting to cook meals for first responders and just really a tremendous show of support from our community,” Nelson said. “That really showed us as a community how we are.”
Most recently, Nelson and Ahlberg helped direct the borough’s response to Tuesday’s magnitude 8.2 earthquake, which struck south of the Alaska Peninsula and triggered a tsunami warning for the peninsula’s coastal communities.
From OEM’s incident command room — tucked behind the Soldotna Police Department near Safeway — Nelson said they participated in a “continuous conference” with city administrators, fire chiefs, police chiefs and officers in charge. Ahlberg worked as the public information officer, distributing updates en masse via social media and OEM’s KPB Alerts system.
As he prepares to leave the borough, however, Nelson said he’s sticking around the central peninsula and plans to continue working in emergency response at his own business. Through the change, Nelson said he’ll be able to work with jurisdictions and other groups where he can use skills he’s developed while at the borough.
“I think this is my opportunity to be able to share my talents and my passion with other jurisdictions in other places, whether they be here in Alaska, or other parts of the country,” Nelson said.
If everything goes according to plan, Nelson and Ahlberg said, people shouldn’t notice the transfer of power.
“The residents should not notice anything different, you know, our systems or processes,” Nelson said.
Nelson and Ahlberg also emphasized the role community preparedness can play in emergency response. Though a disaster will take the borough about five to seven years to “close,” the ability for the borough to get things back on track relies on how long residents are able to be self-sufficient.
“I think a lot of people don’t always listen to that preparedness message,” Nelson said. “But, if you think about the whole community aspect of it, all of us doing that together really makes for a truly resilient place and that means we get back to normal faster when something happens.”
Borough residents can sign up to receive emergency alerts from the borough on their mobile devices at kpb.us/emergency-mgmt/oem/oem-home/self-registration/kpb-alerts.
Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at firstname.lastname@example.org.