Storm’s silver lining: Great practice for real thing

David and Jean McClain were in line with the advice of local emergency responders when they decided to take in last week's storm from the safety of the dunes rather than walk the beach. Local agencies synchronized their response to the storm with the help of coordinated Emergency Operation Centers. 

If the hard wind and steady rain that slapped the coast last weekend fell short of its billing as the “Storm of the Century,” at least it gave local emergency responders valuable true-life practice for responding to a more significant incident sometime in the future.

The Pacific County Emergency Management Agency (PCEMA), in concert with local responders, public safety and government officials, converged at two multi-agency staffed Emergency Operations Centers (EOC) over the weekend to monitor the storm’s development, issue warnings and plan a coordinated response.

“We connected those two EOCs by phone and operated them as a single coordination point, and then nothing really happened,” said PCEMA Deputy Director Scott McDougall. “But we were prepared to provide coordinating support to any operation that might go on in the county.”

McDougall said the last time the EOCs in both South Bend and Long Beach were fully staffed to “level one activation” was in the wake of the 2011 earthquake in Japan, when many Peninsula residents evacuated to high ground in pre-dawn hours. The tsunami-preparedness event Cascadia Rising also prompted a level one response, but that was an exercise, not an actual emergency.

Throughout the storm, the EOCs buzzed with reps from PCEMA, Pacific County Sheriff’s Office, Pacific County Fire District No. 1, police from the county’s four cities, the Red Cross, local volunteer fire departments and even amateur radio operators.

HAM radio operators were also present at local fire departments. In the event of an extreme emergency with phone and internet outages, the radios could prove vital.

“If the traditional methods of communication had failed, people from the community would have been able to go to the fire station for specific news and information,” McDougall said.

The EOCs were created as part of the National Incident Management System (NIMS). NIMS provides state, tribal, and local government organizations involved in incident management and emergency response with a comprehensive framework to use during natural catastrophes and severe emergencies. Without enhanced coordination, agencies accustomed to acting independently may prove challenged when a multi-agency response is critical.

A basic premise of NIMS is that all incidents begin and end locally. According to information publicized by Homeland Security, NIMS does not take command away from state and local authorities, but “simply provides the framework to enhance the ability of responders, including private sector and NGOs [non-governmental organizations like Red Cross], to work more effectively.”

“They want control of the event at the lowest level possible,” McDougall said. “They want everyone on the same page and everyone speaking the same language; but with the idea that you maintain control at the local level.”

The Department of Homeland Security was established in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks partially as a reaction to what was perceived as a dangerous inability of individual response agencies — fire departments, and local, state and federal law enforcement — to effectively communicate and share critical information in real time. EOCs and other NIMS protocols now give agencies a system for bridging the communication gap.

With a guiding framework, any response can grow as big as it needs to be, from a localized storm incident to a massive earthquake and tsunami. But even if an event isn’t big, NIMS protocols are always embedded into everyday dispatch protocols.

“The larger the incident gets, the more obvious it becomes,” McDougall said, “but it happens every single time an agency responds.”

Even if the storm wasn’t the big, bad monster the region was expecting, McDougall said had it been, area responders were ready for battle.

“The overriding thought was that even though there wasn’t a whole lot of activity because the storm didn’t materialize, it gave us an opportunity to exercise the mechanism very well,” McDougall said.

Chief Jacob Brundage of Pacific County Fire District No. 1 said his department posted staff at both EOCs and had extra personnel on call across the Peninsula. PCFD1 brought another level of communications preparedness with their main station backup radio tower and also supported the network of amateur radio operators.

“If we would have had communications go out, we would have immediately been able to ramp up a secondary system,” Brundage said.

PCFD1 fielded about a dozen calls during the storm but only one was related to the weather. That was a report of a fire in a tree caused by a downed line. Other than a few extra guys earning overtime, the weekend did not put any undue strain on the fire department, Brundage said.

“I’d much rather be prepared for something that doesn’t happen than not be prepared and then have to scramble,” he said.

Even though the storm didn’t pack the wallop forecasters had predicted, Brundage thought it was smart that both EOCs were fired up and running well ahead of the worst weather.

“That is not always how these things have been addressed before,” Brundage said. “Someone was doing some forward thinking and trying to be proactive.”

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