More than just sirens

To be truly prepared in an emergency requires frequent practice, not just the occasional large-scale drill.

Every so often, the various emergency response departments in Webster County hold such a drill. They’ll use an old school bus to stand in for a burning plane, complete with accident victims with fake injuries, or respond to a simulated explosion at a grain elevator.

But it’s also very useful to simply talk through a scenario, using miniatures to act out what would happen, said Webster County Emergency Management Coordinator Tony Jorgensen.

“It’s expensive to do. It takes a lot of planning to put a full-scale exercise together,” Jorgensen said. “A tabletop exercise – it’s relatively inexpensive, and it’s a great learning experience.”

The tabletop exercise held Thursday was a hypothetical emergency at the Fort Dodge Regional Airport. It involved Jorgensen and representatives from the Fort Dodge Fire and Police departments, the airport, several area volunteer fire departments, the Red Cross, The Salvation Army, and Webster County Public Health.

“We do a lot of exercises in Webster County. All of our different agencies are really involved in this,” Jorgensen said.

Interagency cooperation is key, he said.

Fire, police and sheriff’s departments aren’t the only ones involved in disaster planning, preparation, mitigation and response.

“People don’t realize it, but Public Works and the Secondary Roads department are probably the least recognized disaster and emergency responders,” he said.

“Most of our disasters in Webster County have been flooding issues. What does that effect? … In the big picture, it ruins our roads, which effects our economy. So any time we have these heavy rains, the county engineer has his crews out seeing where there’s damage to the miles and miles of roadways

“That’s really important to the damage assessment part.”

Webster County is fortunate, he said, in that it has had a very effective Interagency Disaster Planning Committee for years.

“A disaster is a really terrible time to meet people,” he said. “Through the Interagency Committee we all know each other on a first-name basis. It means we can work together much more effectively.”

Disaster reaction, and the interaction between agencies, is governed by the National Incident Management System. The county has used this system since 2006, when the federal government mandated a more consistent nationwide approach. The system was originally created in California to help coordinate multiple departments fighting wildfires, Jorgensen said.

NIMS provides a framework for Incident Command, which is used by any department that responds to a disaster.

“It’s just a protocol you use to help coordinate people and resources,” he said.

Webster County Public Health also plays an important role in any disaster.

“With groups like Public Health, a lot of people don’t understand, why would you need this group there?” he said.

For one thing, the nurses are trained in NIMS, so they can be very helpful with the hundreds of things that go on during a disaster.

“Nurses are, by nature, very intelligent and good problem-solvers,” he said.

In the airport scenario, for example, someone has to be responsible for uniting families with each other. Public Health, The Salvation Army and Red Cross can fill that role.

“You need someone other than the traditional firemen. They have other things to do,” Jorgensen said.

Health Department workers can also be instrumental in setting up communication. During a disaster, misinformation and rumors can run wild, and it’s extremely important that the public hears an accurate message, he said.

For example, years ago the berm of the hydroelectric dam had a leak, Jorgensen said, and stories quickly blew the issue out of proportion.

“I don’t know what kind of threat it was. However, rumors got around that the dam was going to fail and a big tsunami was on way down to Lehigh, and out at the hospital that the emergency room was flooded.

“That’s on a hill,” he said. “If that’s underwater, then my house is about 50 yards underwater.”