By Sheriff Leon Lott

The 2018 Atlantic Hurricane Season, which began June 1 and will run through November 30, has been relatively mild this year. But that is no reason to let down our guard here in South Carolina. You can rest assured your Richland County Sheriff’s Dept. (RCSD) is watchful, guarded, and always prepared for any and all eventualities. Indeed, far more than we’ve ever been.

For hundreds of years, law-enforcement agencies have maintained a cultural distance from the responsibilities of disaster preparedness – whether natural or man-made disasters – and response. Those things have been traditionally deemed the purview of firefighters, medical personnel, agencies like the Red Cross, weather forecasters, engineers, and to a degree the military. Granted, law-enforcement personnel have always had important roles to play in disaster response; but those roles have primarily been limited to keeping the peace, protecting lives and property, and otherwise enforcing the law.

That all changed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. On that day and during that series of asymmetrical events, everyone was doing their jobs and helping manage and shoulder some of the responsibilities of others. The nation was rocked on its heels. Everyone was bracing for the next wave of attacks. All were attempting to mitigate the damage to lives and property. The necessities of responsibility overlap and shared knowledge were not only overwhelming but immediately recognizable.

That day forever changed the culture of policing and public safety; locally, statewide, and nationally.

Perhaps the most important lesson learned for law enforcement coming out of 9/11 was that there had to be dramatically improved, seamless, interagency communication. During the attacks and in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, there were a number of potentially disastrous communications problems. Agencies for whatever reason were unable to communicate and coordinate efforts with other agencies. This seamless communication is critical in life-and-death situations where minutes and seconds count.

Since 9/11, the culture of law enforcement’s approach to any and all man-made or natural disasters has made a 180-degree turn. Today, we – I’m speaking now primarily of our own RCSD – are prepared for all eventualities, and our interagency relations and communications are at an all-time high. We have an open line of communication with the U.S. Army at Fort Jackson, the S.C. adjutant general’s office, the state’s Emergency Management Division and others.

Moreover, we are trained and equipped for everything from swift-water rescue (whether by boat, a landed position or deputies trained-and-equipped to enter the water and save lives); to providing food, water, clothing, and other essentials to disaster victims; providing transportation to evacuees, even fielding chain-saw teams to cut trees off houses and large trees and other pieces of debris blocking roads for other emergency response personnel needing access.

Together with other law-enforcement agencies around the country, we have now embraced these newfound responsibilities. They are as much a part of 21st century policing in disaster preparedness and during disaster response as are our traditional responsibilities of keeping the peace, counter-looting operations, enforcing curfews, and generally ensuring that all of our citizens and their property are safe and secure.

Today, all RCSD deputies and other officers are required to train through FEMA’s National Incident Management System. This program is but one of many steps taken to ensure our men and women are fully prepared for as yet unforeseen natural or man-made disasters. Deputies also receive incident management training here at RCSD, and many have earned their undergraduate or graduate degrees in Emergency Management. This is now part of our culture.

I take this preparation seriously and personally which is why I enrolled in the Masters in Emergency Management program at Lander University in 2014.

My thinking then was fivefold. I felt that (1) if I was going to require my people take these additional steps in terms of disaster preparedness, (2) if we were going to change the cultural mindset surrounding our duties and responsibilities, (3) if RCSD was going to continue to look to the future as we always have, (4) if I was going to be the best sheriff I could be for the people of Richland County, then (5) I needed to take several steps beyond my own traditional law enforcement training and experience.

It was while I was earning that degree, we were struck by a disastrous thousand-year flood event stemming from Hurricane Joaquin and another weather system colliding with Joaquin forcing the hurricane to lie stationary off our coastline and producing what has since been referred to as the “perfect storm” in early October 2015.

It was then – and is now – interesting to me the very things we were being taught would happen, were the very things we were now experiencing in real time.

The damage to our county and state as a result of the Joaquin flooding was extreme: Unlike anything, we’ve experienced in recorded history. But RCSD’s response was textbook as was that of other law-enforcement agencies across the Palmetto State. Not only our response to Joaquin, but our response to Hurricane Matthew the following year, and various lesser storms since.

Training and retraining for non-traditional roles in emergency response have enabled us to effectively mitigate what otherwise might have been something beyond-catastrophic in terms of numbers of lives lost. This is not to suggest the lives lost in the aforementioned disasters were not catastrophic. They absolutely were. But a life saved is a life saved. And in the end, isn’t that what law enforcement is all about?


Sheriff Leon Lott leads the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, one of the largest law enforcement agencies in the state.