October 17, 2019

Flooding event proves what drill intended to test - Daily Leader Extra : Top Stories

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Flooding event proves what drill intended to test

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Posted: Monday, October 7, 2019 3:08 pm

Lake County first responders will not be conducting a disaster drill utilizing a propane tree to simulate a propane fire in order to test their skills and abilities, according to Lake County Emergency Management Director Kody Keefer.

With a boots on the ground disaster which began just days before the scheduled drill in September, their skills and abilities have been tested, and both Keefer and Police Chief Justin Meyer, incident commander for the flooding event, believe the first responders demonstrated an ability to work together to meet the public safety needs of area residents.

"We were very pleased with how it went," Meyer said.

In mid-September, after nearly 12 inches of rain was received in two days, leading to widespread flooding, it became evident that multiple agencies would be responding to needs in Madison and in Lake county. An Emergency Operations Center was established in the commission meeting room at City Hall and roles were established.

"Then things started flowing more quickly," Meyer said.

Multiple agencies had representatives at the table, including area law enforcement, area fire departments and emergency management, all of whom had training to address different aspects of the evolving situation.

As needs were identified, the agencies could coordinate their efforts. Meyer used the example of the logistics director identifying resources the operations director needed.

Keefer was quick to point out the importance of the 911 Communications Center and the role dispatchers played in helping other agencies identify and respond to needs.

"The biggest thing was the reliability of communications," he stated.

April Denholm, director of 911 Communications, said that between Sept. 11 and Sept. 18, the dispatch center handled 1,421 calls. Of those, 157 were 911 calls. By contrast, during the previous week, the center handled 388 calls, of which 64 were 911 calls.

"It was very constant," she said.

Because the center is currently short-staffed and hiring, calls were fielded by one dispatcher during each shift, with the exception of two intervals on Sept. 12 when two people were working.

As the Local Emergency Planning Committee was preparing for the disaster drill, Keefer had said a drill would test how well the various disciplines in the county worked together. Throughout the disaster, Meyer saw an extension of the collaborative spirit typical of the working relationship between the Madison Police Department and the Lake County Sheriff's Department.

"That spilled over out to the county Highway Department and city Street Department," he said, using those departments and the sandbagging stations as an example.

Sandbagging stations were open at both locations with the Highway Department providing sand when the city Street Department ran out. Also, the two departments worked together to get barricades up as those in the EOC were able to obtain barricades outside the area after the local supply was exhausted.

"The city guys helped out on township and county roads," Keefer said, to illustrate that point. "The Police Department had no problems leaving the city to help out, either."

Keefer also made special note of the way the volunteer firefighters were willing to step up and do anything that was needed. He said a couple of firefighters acted as go-fers for him, helping in any way needed.

"They were on it," he said. "They were Johnny-on-the-spot. That was huge."

Keefer thinks the collaborative spirit dominated because there were no egos involved. No one tried to take credit for the work being done. Meyer made a similar observation.

"There's no ego in there; you're just there to get a job done," he said.

"If a situation arose, we kicked it around and got some suggestions and went with what we thought was best," Meyer said.

In the EOC, those who were coordinating efforts discovered a couple of assets they may not have fully appreciated in a drill. The first was knowledge of local resources that people like Wentworth Fire Chief Terry Reck brought to the table. Both Meyer and Keefer noted the way someone in the room always knew who to call.

"Where anybody ran into a roadblock, we were able to make a phone call to get the job done," Keefer said.

The second asset was that community volunteers and community businesses were ready to do what they could to help. Meyer said they decided to make barricades locally, in part, because so many volunteers showed up to help with sandbagging.

"When you have people coming to help, you have to find ways to put them to use," he said.

He also mentioned the way a business' willingness to donate zip ties saved hours of time, and the way East River equipment was used during evacuations.

In reviewing the flooding event and community response, one area for improvement has been identified: how to disseminate information to the public. In addition to regular media briefings, social media was widely used. At times, this led to confusion.

One possibility being discussed is the use of a website which people could check. Another possibility is a mass notification system which would take advantage of cell towers, but not not require prior enrollment.

"We need to find the best bang for our buck," Keefer said.

He said the county doesn't want to duplicate what is being done or to waste capabilities, but something is needed to better serve the public.

"We're shopping around to find the best solution for us," he said.

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