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Final audit of Montgomery County agencies’ response to deadly apartment explosion

ROCKVILLE, MD — The Montgomery County Council was briefed Tuesday on the final internal audit report that focused on how county agencies responded in the aftermath of the deadly explosion and fire at the Flower Branch Apartments in Silver Spring in August 2016.

The report identified 14 lessons that could be learned from what was the county's largest ever emergency response. The report's presenter said those could be lumped into three categories.

"First one is incident command and management processes. The second is coordination of non-profit and community organizations. And then the third is planning and preparation for similar emergencies," said Montgomery County Internal Audit Manager Bill Broglie. "The way that the recommendations were taken were very positive and looking at these as opportunities to, in the future, better serve the county residents.”

Two key items identified by the audit said the county should upgrade the wifi capabilities at 10 county community centers that have been pre-designated emergency shelters. This was identified as an issue at the Long Branch Community Center where residents stayed in the aftermath of the incident. County officials said it will cost an estimated $20,000 per site. The second item recommended establishing agreements with non-profit groups to manage non-financial donations. Following the explosion and fire, they had to deal with surplus and uneven donations.

Those who presented the report added that a training scenario based on this incident is being developed and a table top exercise will be conducted with county agencies and non-profit groups in fall 2017.

Following the presentation, several council members added their own comments as to areas they felt needed improvement. One topic mentioned several times, was that the council members felt they were out of the loop when it came to getting information and had to rely on news conferences.

"We all got lots and lots of questions, and I just felt like it would have been good for us to be more on top of it,” said At-Large Council Member Marc Elrich.

The report indicated that over 25 people from the agencies and non-profits involved were interviewed, but District 5 Council Member Tom Hucker, who represents Silver Spring, said several council members were not interviewed and added the report had some “missed opportunities”.

"And most important to me, they didn’t interview any of the victims. I mean, how do you measure success unless you talk to people who are impacted by the fire and explosion,” said Hucker.

When questioned, Broglie said it was his choice not to interview the residents.

“It was a conscious decision on my part not to go directly to any of the impacted residents and try to interview them, for a couple reasons” explained Broglie. “One, they had gone through, I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, I’m just providing a context, they had gone through, for me, what couldn’t be a much more traumatic event and I didn’t want my coming to them and, frankly, trying to intrude in them, on them, to add to what they were already dealing with.”

Hucker added that he didn't like what he called the "arbitrary rules" governing who had access to the fund that was set up to help victims of the explosion and fire. He said it only assisted victims in the two directly affect apartments and not those next door.

"They’re apartments were damaged, they had infants and toddlers exposed to smoke damage but they couldn’t get any funds," said Hucker.

Hucker added that it was a mistake for the fund to have been run by a non-profit as it has now been shut down and people still want to donate to help the victims. He said he will introduce legislation as early as next week to create a county-run fund should one be needed in the future.