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Town Disaster Protocols Evaluated During "Table-Top" Exercise

May 30, 2014 01:31PM ● By Pamela Johnson
Suppose the boss was out of town when you, the “second-in-command,” were told that a natural disaster was about to strike the whole region?  Would you know what to do? That was the question posed recently to Bellingham employees of the police, fire, school and municipal departments.  For many, it was their first experience with this type of “table-top exercise,” which was planned by Bellingham Fire Department Deputy Chief Mark Poirier, also the town Emergency Management Director. It was executed by Rich Latour and John Grenier of the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA), and they used as a scenario the actual ice storm of 2008 that crippled the Northeast.
Rather than being out of town however, each department head was actually present to evaluate just how their second-in-command would handle the response and recovery plans for a hypothetical ice storm and all related incidents in a no-fault learning environment. The exercise also provided an opportunity to review and refine standard operating procedures (SOPs), response plans, mutual-aid agreements and the public warning system, as well as coordination of emergency management efforts by first responders, public works, public health, local hospitals, environmental protection, local schools, and other private agencies as well as local, state and federal partners.

Fire Chief Steve Gentile said, “As Fire Chief it’s important for me to evaluate the town’s current response plans to ensure that all departments are clear on how to handle their responsibilities in a given situation. To have personnel who are ‘second-in-command’ who have the knowledge to handle different types of emergencies is very important.  My philosophy is, if only one person within your department knows something, then it is a detriment to the tasks that have to be accomplished. This exercise showed that Bellingham departments are well versed on how to proceed during natural disasters that might strike our community and that the town’s response plans are up-to-date and effective.”
Town Administrator Denis Fraine said, “Training sessions that mimic real-life emergencies provide all of us with an opportunity to work through the various stages of a disaster or emergency in a controlled environment while receiving feedback and suggestions from our trainers and peers. The better prepared we are to address and understand the many aspects of emergency response, the quicker the town will recover when real-life emergencies such as hurricanes and severe winter storms occur.”
John Grenier of MEMA briefed participants on the details and impact of the “storm.” “Moving up through Connecticut and Rhode Island into central and eastern MA, the storm results in massive power outages and damage to trees, power lines and various residential and business areas. Ice builds up 1/2 to 1 inch thick in places, winds reach up to 50 MPH gusts and sustained winds of 30 MPH. A sheet of ice is covering roads, trees, buildings and various structures, making conditions dangerous and prone to additional deterioration,” he said. “Temperatures will continue to be in the mid-twenties to low thirties. Most emergency response facilities are running on generator power. Line crews are unable to begin repairs until roads are clear, and plows cannot clear the roads with downed trees and power lines.”  (The scary part is that this is not made up; these were exactly the conditions we faced in 2008.)

The fire department always monitors the National Weather Service, so, prior to the storm, they would notify other town departments, who would then notify the town, using a combination of social media and the “Code Red” system. Residents would be informed of the impending storm and advised to plan on sheltering in place or, in the event of extended power outages, going to the designated emergency shelter, which is Bellingham Memorial Middle School.

Participants discussed their roles and reactions, from police and fire dispatchers to school administrators to public works personnel; beginning with that initial news that a storm was imminent. This was an opportunity to evaluate departmental responses in regard to communications abilities and plans, including the level of interoperability among the local departments and state agencies; economic and recovery abilities during an extended incident; local infrastructure recovery plans; and responder health and safety, all with the ultimate goal of fine-tuning procedures already in place or establishing new procedures where deemed necessary.
According to DPW Director Don DiMartino, “The exercise gave us a good ‘to do’ list of things--plans, checklists, tools and equipment--that we can work on to improve our capabilities. During major loss of phone services and power, our lack of ability to communicate seems the most critical thing for us to consider improving.  Almost equally critical is maintaining means or procedures to communicate with our fellow responders and with our residents.”

Other department heads echoed DiMartino. “As a department head, it is crucial to have faith and trust in your staff, knowing that they can handle emergency operations in our absence,” said Police Chief Gerard L. Daigle, Jr. “I think this exercise demonstrated that the town has a reliable and knowledgeable staff who can step up to the plate during an emergency situation. Participants engaged in good dialogue about the emergency scenario; great questions were asked, and ideas were presented about how to best handle various issues. Having all departments participate to see what the other departments are faced with proved to be very beneficial for everyone involved.”

The after-storm activities were broken down by initial response (24-48 hours), initial incident recovery (3-5 days) and long-term recovery (7-10 days), and the town’s responses at each stage of recovery were examined. An After-Action Report (AAR) will be produced, which will support the development of an improvement plan. The AAR is not used as a departmental report card; it just provides reference and recommendations for response planning and training. 

“The truth of the matter is that over the last 3 years we have had to deal with a genuine hurricane and extended power-outage situation and multiple storm preparations,” said Superintendent of Schools Edward Fleury. “The Deputy Fire Chief and Fire Chief have held very effective emergency preparation meetings in the past, making this mock drill more about refining, rather than creating, emergency procedures for our schools and community. I am confident that the School Department has the trained personnel to respond in a crisis and assist our community, to make our resources available and effective in a crisis situation.” He continued, “As a result of previous experiences, the one thing that stands out is the genuine need for both the new police facility and the upgraded emergency communication network that will be established with the new facility to deal with crisis situations.”
Afterwards, Deputy Chief Poirier observed, “The department heads set out to test their second in command and find out if operational information is filtering down to them correctly. This exercise shows that the target group was well trained and needs little work to make them proficient during an emergency.  During any training such as this we found some procedures that need to be fine-tuned and adjusted so we can better service the town of Bellingham. I feel this drill was a great success, and everyone who attended expressed just that. The town is in good hands if we have an emergency of this nature.”

story & photos by Pamela Johnson, BULLETIN Publisher

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