DEAR SHERIFF: Can you explain the process, and the implications of, an emergency declaration in the county?
ANSWER: Indiana law provides the governor or the county commissioners with the ability to declare an emergency situation in the state or county respectively. IC 10-14-3-1 lists all the many types of disasters, some more ominous than others.
The purpose of a local emergency declaration depends on the situation. Generally, the purpose is to prevent or mitigate those disasters where possible, generally to provide for the common defense, to protect the public peace, health and safety, and to preserve the lives and property of the people of the county, all while upholding the constitutions of the United States and Indiana.
The county commissioners, as is the sheriff, are elected by all the residents of the county, not just those living outside municipal limits. Logically, the commissioners’ role in emergency declarations includes municipal areas within the county, unless specified by the commissioners.
In any disaster, and depending on the situation, the commissioners will consult with the sheriff, highway director, Emergency Management director, fire service, etc., before declaring a state of emergency and the scope of the declaration.
Based on my experience, witnessing this process in my 27 years of service at the sheriff’s department, the county commissioners and others involved in the decision do not make this decision flippantly. In addition, the commissioners are in a tug-of-war of sorts; to not only listen and balance a variety of constituents’ opinions and needs, but addressing public safety and mitigation of the crisis while often dealing with quickly changing conditions.
The commissioners and I, as typified in the two recent snow emergency declarations, experience two paradigms: Those who think government should keep their noses completely out of people’s business no matter how bad it gets, including those who believe their “constitutional right to travel” should not be restricted, to those who think they cannot do anything without government telling them what to do.
In the recent snow storms, the scope of the declaration involved a travel warning, enforceable by law enforcement, to keep non-essential personnel from traveling on the roadways. During a blizzard, highway workers and police spend most of their time pulling people from ditches and snow drifts, preventing them from clearing the roadways. The declaration keeps traffic off the road and allows the county to get back to normal as soon as possible. The commissioners, again while consulting with the same leaders that originated the emergency, decide to lift the restrictions as soon as safely possible.
Being that Elkhart County encompasses more than 400 square miles, some areas may not be affected by a crisis, while other areas are seriously impacted. In the future, an emergency declaration may focus on narrow geographical areas, excluding the municipal areas, if applicable, and reduce the impact to businesses and travel of those not affected by the crisis.
Ask-the-Sheriff a question by emailing Elkhart County Sheriff Brad Rogers at brogers@elkhartcountysheriff.