Training efforts try to limit potential damage if disaster hits
By Shavonne Potts
SALISBURY — Everyone thinks it can’t happen, until it does. Disaster can strike at any time, sometimes without warning. Those who train to handle catastrophic events say being prepared is key to reducing danger.
Frank Thomason, the Rowan County emergency management coordinator is responsible for maintaining the county’s emergency response plan.
“Training sessions allow us to look at individual plans and focus on how to better prepare their own towns,” Thomason said.
Many in the public safety sector from multiple municipalities recently gathered for a training session. The session focused on identifying a threat and making the plan that is in place work efficiently.
“We’ve had an emergency operations plan in place for many years and it constantly evolves and changes,” Thomason said.
There are two major types of disasters responders train for — man-made and natural.
A man-made disaster could be a school shooting or train derailment while a natural disaster would be a hurricane or an ice storm.
They also train for other low-risk events that aren’t likely to occur in this area.
The county’s plan, which is maintained in an electronic database, has 25 different areas broken into annexes or chapters. Those annexes include law enforcement, search and rescue, shelter and mass care, and airport/aircraft emergencies.
Each annex has its own plan with one or more primary agencies and multiple support agencies. The primary agency is responsible for coordinating that annex.
For instance, the American Red Cross, county health department and Rowan Social Services would together act as the primary agencies for a disaster that involves shelter and caring for a large number of people.
Through the years, the plan became “something that was never updated or rewritten,” Thomason said.
9/11 wakeup call
Sept. 11, 2001, in a lot of ways was a wakeup call, Thomason said, because it brought preparedness back to the forefront and made it something that needed continual change.
Technology has been a great asset in disaster response.
Now much of the plans — including who to call, blueprints and maps — are electronic and available to responders via the electronic database.
Also, getting information to residents is easier than ever with social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.
Aaron Youngblood, who maintains the emergency management services’ content as its social media coordinator, provides tidbits about the weather conditions, fire safety and road closings.
Youngblood said it’s about being visible to the public.
“We are expanding into other forms — Flickr and a blog page,” he said.
Salisbury Deputy Police Chief Steve Whitley has been a part of the planning process for his department’s emergency operation plans for a long time.
Carrying out a disaster plan takes help from myriad agencies.
“You have to be able to take one step back and know you can’t do it by yourself,” he said.
“Everything is event specific. We have the availability to call in different resources, be it fire or public works,” Whitley said.
The federal government also mandates that the plan include a way to protect infrastructure such as the county’s water supply, highways or natural gas lines.
“The biggest concern is as we grow geographically, we have to reconfigure our response,” Whitley said.
The plan is updated as the city grows, adds businesses and other structures.
“We try to plan for eventualities — there are lots of factors, including the weather, whether it’s day or nighttime,” he said.
The No. 1 goal is to protect life. Property comes second, Whitley said.
“There is always a contingency plan, and over time we tweak the plan,” he said.
The department often may rewrite the response plan after an actual event points out what didn’t work.
“You have to make yourself think outside the box,” he said.
A disaster may not be something sinister like an act of terrorism, but it could be a disaster that affects service, such as an ice storm.
Preparation is key, Whitley said.
“It’s very easy in an emergency to get overwhelmed if you’re not prepared,” he said.
Whitley said, sometimes you have to change or tailor a response. “You have to be able to fall back on training,” he said.
He said Rowan County is lightyears ahead of other larger areas in integrating technology into disaster response.
“Emergencies will happen, but there’s still a way to plan for them,” Whitley said.
Part of a plan is looking beyond the normal calamity. Nothing brought looking beyond the normal response than the events that unfolded on Sept. 11.
Rowan Regional Medical Center is no exception. It made the hospital look at their emergency preparedness plan in a different light.
“We always had an emergency preparedness plan. Sept. 11 really changed how we view the plan,” said Rick Parker, senior director of professional and support services.
He said many were stunned that an act of terrorism could happen, but it let everyone know they had to “be prepared for anything,” Parker said.
Hospital officials began thinking about more than how to prepare for a severe ice storm or other natural disaster. Now they look at biological, chemical or radiological disasters, said Ken Mowery, director of engineering and public safety.
The hospital changed the frequency of their drills and implemented unannounced drills that sometimes included multiple agencies or just hospital staff, Mowery said.
The hospital’s plan does not revolve around a single person who operates as incident commander.
Staff learned they had no contingency if the incident commander was not available during a disaster.
They’ve since cross-trained multiple people to fill different roles.
“We have an organization chart, but it’s blank. You are assigned a role,” Mowery said.
Any of the doctors or administrators can act as the incident commander, he said.
Parker said this format gets staff to think beyond plan A or B.
Each incident commander has a checklist of sorts they follow for an incident.
A committee of doctors, nurses, maintenance workers, lab technicians and infection prevention personnel meets monthly to discuss the hospital’s plan.
The hospital has to be able to care for its patients even if there’s a power outage.
That led to the installation of seven generators throughout the facility, said Todd Bare, who routinely monitors the generators.
“It’s seamless. No one should be able to tell when I flip the switch,” he said.
The generators are designed to provide power in an outage within six and a half seconds.
The hospital built a decontamination chamber off the emergency department.
There is also a mobile self-contained decontamination tent that can be taken to a scene and set up within five minutes.
The Hefner VA Medical Center has a plan that is developed around Hazardous Vulnerability Analysis, an assessment used by many hospitals as a way to identify man-made or natural hazards/disasters and how that entity responds to those disasters.
“The plan is built around things that are likely to happen,” said Tom Lee, Hefner VA Medical Center emergency preparedness coordinator.
Lee is also with facilities management service.
The plans are developed, tweaked, improved and a copy sent to Thomason.
“They are reviewed annually, but updated constantly,” Lee said.
Nurses, doctors and other VA personnel have “input on the plan, help develop the plan and design our drills, he said.
Lee said the medical center is required to have at least two full-scale drills, but they usually have more or participate in other agencies’ drills. The last full-scale drill was in 2010. The staff also conducts “table-top” drills where the scenarios are played out around a table with various personnel and agencies. A table-top drill is carried out every year.
After a drill, those involved debrief, and later those who make up the committee, critique the drill.
“We get input from everybody,” said Peter Bader, facilities management service chief.
The disaster plan has a flexible hierarchy. If the coordinator is unavailable, there are two reserve coordinators, Bader explained.
There are accommodations in place in the event VA staff are not able to leave or arrive at the facility. For instance, if an ice storm prevents a doctor from getting to work, staff members are to go to his house and bring him to the Salisbury facility, Bader said.
“The man-made events are the ones we worry about,” said VA Police Chief Steve Elliott.
He said the department, which has 35 officers, make it a priority to train for the “highest risk” incidents.
The Hefner VA Medical Center also includes outpatient clinics in Charlotte, Hickory and Winston-Salem. Some drills involve those outpatient facilities.
“We communicate with all of our facilities statewide,” Elliott said.
The top goal is to train for an active threat such as a hostage situation, the chief said.
The police training includes knowing every inch of the buildings on the 155-acre campus, down to furniture placement in the offices.
Elliott also has regular meetings with other VA chiefs. Officers regularly go to the shooting range, participate in computer-simulated drills and work with the city police and other county law enforcement agencies.
In instances of emergency, doctors have access to medical records of patients who may arrive at the Salisbury VA from another VA facility.
“We have to keep the emergency department open for our veterans, but we can respond to other needs,” said. Dr. Robert Brazis.
Contact reporter Shavonne Potts at 704-797-4253.